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From Hate to Reconciliation – The Little Rock Nine

By Carol / February 6, 2018 / 12 Comments

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.

Elizabeth Eckford walks bravely ahead of a segregationist crowd at Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

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.

 

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Carol

12 Comments

  1. Sharon Lippincott on February 7, 2018 at 8:23 am

    Beautifully conceived and written Carol. The irony is that more than half the babies born in the USA now are Latino. Add Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern immigrants and our existing African American population, and in another generation we white folks will be the minority. Seems likely to me that white folks could become the target of discrimination and worse if those fences aren’t mended soon!

    • Carol on February 7, 2018 at 8:34 am

      Thanks for kicking off the discussion, Sharon. DNA testing has opened up a lot of eyes to how mixed our racial background may be. A Washington Post article today – “They Considered Themselves White But DNA Tests Told A More Complex Story” – explored the complex reaction to this mixed-ancestry news. I hold out hope that the discussion that develops out of all this leads to an understanding that we’re really all the same. Though our history in race relations make that unlikely.

  2. Joan Z. Rough on February 7, 2018 at 9:04 am

    A very moving post and reminder of where we’ve been and unfortunately still are. In 1957 I would not have been marching with the white segregationist, but I would have done nothing. I was in high school living in a home with a father who was bigot. I kept my mouth shut in order to keep the peace so that I wouldn’t be punished for my disagreement with him. As children all we have are our parents and no place to go. I now wish I had had the courage to make my own beliefs known.

    • Carol on February 7, 2018 at 10:37 am

      Our parents are our strongest influence, Joan, and you are to be forgiven for not speaking up at the time. I would not have been able to refute my parents either. For Hazel, too. She was spouting what she learned at home and among her neighbors. In my case, though, my parents were largely silent on the subject of race. Their views were strong on many other topics, though, and even though they’ve both passed away, I’m only recently becoming confident in voicing my own (contrary) opinions on those topics. Their influence runs deep. As do attitudes in our country regarding race.

  3. Paulette Mahurin on February 7, 2018 at 10:20 am

    Moving and very timely. BTW: I love the cover of your new book, Simple Truth, and can’t wait for it to hit the press.

    • Carol on February 7, 2018 at 10:26 am

      Thanks, Paulette. Simple Truth will be available for Kindle pre-orders shortly. I’ll let you know.

  4. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on February 7, 2018 at 12:45 pm

    Much food for thought here, Carol. I just read an article by Gwynne Dyer re the situation in Syria, and he ends his article with a rather depressing, but I think also realistic statement about the “very old game” that keeps repeating itself in our world. He writes: “A few thousand people get killed, a few pawns move on the strategic chessboard and then it’s time for the next round. Once in a while, things get out of hand and a great deal of death and destruction ensues over a broad area, but not often; maybe every second generation. And there is no final outcome: the leading players change from time to time, but the game never ends.”

    • Carol on February 7, 2018 at 2:21 pm

      Dyer’s comment IS depressing, Elfrieda, but I can’t say I disagree. A disheartening view of humankind.

  5. Merril Smith on February 8, 2018 at 7:07 am

    A wonderful and thoughtful post, Carol. Thank you.
    I think I heard the two women in the photo interviewed at some point on NPR.
    I was reminded of a an episode on a new PBS show, “We’ll Meet Again.” A woman who was interned as a child in a camp here in the US during WWII because she was Japanese wanted to find her childhood friend who stood up for her.

    • Carol on February 8, 2018 at 8:48 am

      Somehow I missed the reconciliation of these two women, which I’m sure made big news at the time. Thanks for the tip about the PBS show, Merril. I’ll look for it. If we’re lucky and open to it, age brings us wisdom. And if we’re really lucky, a chance to make things right.

  6. Billie Wade on February 9, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    Eloquently put, Carol. As a young black girl, I would not have had the courage and determination of the black girl in the photo. Aside from my own fear, my parents would have discouraged me. I most likely would not have those qualities today.I am quite fearful of attack and retaliation. I am humbled by the raw courage and tenacity it took for her and others to take those frightful steps. Many people have died for progress. Many others want to take that away. Forgiveness and reconciliation are challenging for me, but I work on the acceptance that provides for them. It is a hard road. I have a glimmer of hope that, as a nation, the racial barriers are weakening, however correct Gwynne Dyer may be in his assessment. I am hearing more and more about white people who are moved by visiting African American museums and walking away with a sense of disquiet and unnerving. I do believe progress starts individually and spreads until a groundswell forces change. Thank you for this beautiful, thought-provoking post.

    • Carol on February 10, 2018 at 3:30 pm

      Exhibits like this one do have an impact, Billie. Seeing this exhibit and others has definitely opened my eyes in many ways. One thing I didn’t know until I saw this exhibit the first time was that these teenagers didn’t come out of nowhere and act on their own. The NAACP played a leading role in choosing this school and these kids to lead the effort. The kids’ parents agreed and supported their children throughout. The kids had to make that walk alone, but they were not on their own. That made me feel a little better. And maybe this is a take away for all of us. We act individually, but we’re not alone.

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