From Hate to Reconciliation – The Little Rock Nine
I visited the Little Rock Central High School Historic Site this past week. The courage and bravery of “The Little Rock Nine” – teenagers who dared to face down angry mobs of segregationists – brought tears to my eyes. The hate they faced shamed me. The exhibit held every bit as much power as when I first saw it years ago.
One picture in particular fixes that 1957 desegregation moment in my mind.
The 15-year-old African-American girl, her blouse and skirt freshly ironed, her books held firmly in one arm, walks ahead of a throng of white men and women who crowd in close, threatening her with talk of tree limbs and ropes. The black girl’s face is impassive, her gaze fixed ahead and down, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. As the crowd yells at her, spits at her, she does not react, no matter how afraid she must be.
Behind her, one white girl stands out: her face contorted, her mouth wide open as she shouts her racist beliefs. For me, that girl embodies all the hate of that time.
She was young, which offers some excuse, but I couldn’t help but wonder what happened when she grew up? What did her children and grandchildren think when they looked at her in that picture? Then would she be proud of her racist actions that day?
Looking at this picture, I also could not help but wonder where I would have stood on that day in 1957. I want to believe I would not have been shouting along with the white girl. But would I have stood with the black girl? Or would that have taken more courage than I had? I simply don’t know.
A Life Is More Than A Moment – Little Rock Reconciliation
When I mentioned the white girl in the photo to the man at the museum desk, he told me more of the story. The white girl – Hazel Bryan – came to regret her actions that day. Years later, she reached out to the black woman – Elizabeth Eckford – to apologize. I was told the wounds did not heal immediately, but years later, the two have reconciled. They are the subject of a poster commemorating the 60th anniversary of desegregation at Little Rock Central HS. Their story is told in a book of photos and essays: “A Life Is More Than A Moment,” by Will Counts.
As the book title says, our lives are certainly more than a single moment, but a moment like that, captured on film, unable to be denied, must be indelible. A moment we learn from. A moment upon which we act going forward, hopefully in a better way.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana
The walls of the historic site museum point to other instances in American history where people have been treated shamefully. The internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Native Americans and the Trail of Tears. Farm workers in California. Each of these situations rose out of greed, fear, and hate. It has taken decades for reconciliation to happen; for some it may not happen at all.
The struggle to gain civil rights is never easy. Nor – apparently – is it ever over. The opportunities for hate to rear its ugly head surface time and again in our country.
I like to think we learn from these situations. That we grow more compassionate. Yet, the current environment in America points toward frightful re-enactments. In Charlottesville. In Orlando. The fingers of fear and hate now point toward Muslims, Latinos, those who are LGBTQ.
If we have learned from the past individually, collective memory seems to elude us. This is for me the challenge of our times. How do we collectively reconcile with the past and move into a future beyond hate, a future that includes reconciliation and hope?
Is this something that can only be accomplished one person, one struggle at a time, one realization at a time? Could we as a society get there? I welcome your thoughts.