An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:
This was a day that started on the steps of Little Rock Central High School with stories of personal courage displayed by the nine black teenagers who faced down unspeakable hatred in dogged pursuit of an integrated, equal education.
Long hours and hundreds of miles after leaving Little Rock, our group was standing in a dark driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, examining by the light of a cellphone the bloodstains still visible where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his home.
The emotional push and pull of this journey came home with real force on this first full day of the pilgrimage. These events happened 50 years ago – the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High in 1957 and Medgar Evers died in 1963 – but the power of place is very strong.
Little Rock Central High School is still a functioning high school, and beautifully maintained as a historic site by the National Park Service. By any measure it is fully integrated, and it’s the kind of school that draws bright, competitive students who bring home awards and honors. But as the Park Ranger who served as our guide wistfully noted, “Students still tend to sit with students who look like them. There are elements of human nature you can’t legislate.”
Ranger/guide Jodi Morris has her own connections to Central High: Her father was in the Arkansas National Guard in 1957 and was called up to help protect the nine black students during their turbulent year at the school: “My dad was here for a month.”
White students were actively encouraged by outside adults to torment the black students, she said. They would pass out professionally printed cards and brochures that would encourage students to attack the Little Rock Nine. And day after day the black students were kicked, pushed down stairs, tripped and spat upon.
“What we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome now? Well, all of them had to process it on their own,” Morris said.
We spent the morning in Little Rock, and it would be fully dark by the time the bus hit the outskirts of Jackson, Miss. Some in our group were puzzled when we pulled into a residential neighborhood – our driver had made a few wrong turns already. But it made sense when the bus stopped under a streetlight in front of the house we recognized as Medgar Evers’ home from documentaries and a movie (Ghosts of Mississippi) we’d watched on the road.
So our day ended with bloodstains and bullet holes, as we heard the retelling of the night Evers was assassinated, and walked through the modest little home he’d shared with his wife and three children. Our guide for this part of the journey, Minnie Watson, explained how NAACP Field Secretary Evers had asked for a design change when his home was being built: Already getting threats for his efforts to register black voters in the Jim Crow south, he asked that the front door open to the carport, not the street side, so that his family could quickly escape the car for the safety of the house if they were attacked.
But Evers was leaning into the trunk of his car when a white supremacist propped his rifle across the branch of a nearby tree and fired a single shot into Evers’ back. He managed to drag himself almost to that specially installed, carport-facing door when he collapsed, his keys still in his hand.
Sunday morning starts with another bus ride – this time to Neshoba County, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan and buried in an earthen dam during the “Freedom Summer” voting rights drive. And then we drive on to Selma, Ala., home to the infamous “Bloody Sunday” attack on civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.