Courage of teens changes America


by Joe Nathan, 4/3/08 • America has moved ahead because of the courage of everyday folks. Last week I wrote about the courage of Iraq soldier Pete Hegseth and Forest Lake Principal Steve Massey. This week the focus turns to nine high school students, who, 50 years ago, shocked and stirred America. They have become known as the “Little Rock Nine.”

These young people, like others, agreed to help desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Thirty years earlier, in 1927, the American Institute of Architects named Central High School, “The Most Beautiful High School in America.” But in September, 1957, thousands of people gathered in front of the high school, making it a very ugly place. They screamed and swore at the nine students who had the courage to try integrating the all white high school (others had volunteered to join them, but decided at the last moment not to participate).

I visited Little Rock last week, and walked up to the school, as, the nine teenagers, Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, and Thelma Mothershed had done.

But it was a beautiful spring day – green glass, purple shrubs, and a very quiet scene. It was so different than those distant days, 50 years ago, when walking into the school produced hatred, threats, and for some of the reporters covering the story, beatings.

In some ways, things became worse after President Eisenhower sent federal troops to protect the Little Rock Nine. According to materials at the National Park Service exhibit across the street, the students encountered enormous hostility and physical aggression from fellow students as they walked to and attended classes inside the building.

A National Park Service building across the street tells the story – as does a very well designed website, Teachers will find extensive materials. So will families. There are pictures, a workbook, some word games, and, testaments to courage, and questions about what WE would do in such a situation.

As a youngster growing up in Wichita, Kansas, I remember the Little Rock story well from nightly television stories. It took almost another decade before the Wichita public high school I attended was desegregated.

Inspired in part by Little Rock, I tried to befriend the first Negro (as we called them then) students. They were very frightened, and very brave. Fortunately, because others had displayed so much courage, the Wichita students faced much less (although quite real) antagonism when they entered Wichita’s Southeast High School.

The names of the Little Rock Nine are not well known. But their heroism had a huge impact.

In some ways, the problems we face today are more complex. We do not question whether to allow students of different races to attend the same school.

But America still needs people willing to take an unpopular stand, and to persist. History does not just help us look back. It can help us decide how to live our lives.