Profiles in teenage courage

By Carol / March 10, 2013 /
"Harriet Tubman" by Jane DeDecker

“Harriet Tubman” by Jane DeDecker

Could I have been so brave? That’s the question I found myself asking yesterday as my travels took me to the Clinton Presidential Library, to sculptures like this one of Civil War abolitionist Harriet Tubman along the Little Rock riverfront, and finally to Little Rock Central High School.

In 1957, nine black teenagers, dubbed “The Little Rock Nine,” stood up – stood against – segregation to attend previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. The naivete they operated under on the first day they showed up for classes was soon erased as the angry crowds that met them each morning became increasingly hostile and the National Guard troops present in the first days were replaced by ill-prepared and frightened city police.

Yet they continued to brave the gauntlet, never faltering, never letting anyone see them cry. They feared for their lives and yet they continued to show up. Only when President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Army with bayonets fixed did those teenagers begin to feel safe again. And even then, their fight was far from over.

The Old Testament of the Bible includes the book of “Esther,” which is the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen to a powerful king. While she is queen, the king is convinced to give the order to kill all the Jews. Esther’s uncle tells her she must go to the king and convince him not to carry out the order. But Esther fears for her life. If she goes to the king when he hasn’t called her, she could be killed. (Harsh, yes, but that was the law.)

Esther’s uncle says to her: “if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14 New International Version)

The bravery of these black teenagers in 1957 astounds me. Times were such that if they had chosen not to walk the gauntlet in Little Rock, it is likely that someone else would have eventually done it – just as Esther’s uncle advised her. But also like Esther, the Little Rock Nine were there at a time and a place in our history when they could step up and make a difference. They looked hatred in the face, and they kept moving forward.

Children if you are tired, keep going.
If you’re hungry, keep going.
If you’re scared, keep going.
If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
— Harriet Tubman


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  1. Barbara McDowell Whitt on March 11, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    The brave students who entered Little Rock Central High School in 1957 did so the same year I started high school in the building I had attended since kindergarten in the very small town of West Chester, Iowa. I believe we seek to see what we have in common with others. While they risked their lives for their and their parents’ beliefs, my experience was pale in comparison. Our class still used the same small lunch room for picking up a hot lunch (no choices, except perhaps plums or prunes), in a three-compartment plate. Then up a flight of stairs and down the hall past our lockers to eat with the upperclass kids in the study hall. The Little Rock Nine became famous. We did not, but that is okay.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 11, 2013 at 11:47 pm

      I went to high school in Preston, Iowa, a community that sounds similar to West Chester. I really wasn’t in a position to see diversity first hand until I was in my 20s. When I stood on the steps of Little Rock Central HS, I tried to imagine how I’d have responded if I’d been there in 1957. I really can’t say.

  2. Mary Gottschalk on March 11, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    I don’t think I ever had that much courage in my entire life. My one chance to “stand up and be counted” when I was in my 20’s, I took the safe road. It still embarrasses me!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 11, 2013 at 11:49 pm

      I didn’t pass my first test either, Mary. The Little Rock Nine did have the encouragement of family and other adults, as well as each other. I’m sure that helped.

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