SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2013

During spring break 2013, students, faculty and staff are taking a nine-day bus ride through the American South to visit civil rights landmarks and leaders in the movement. Political Science Professor Dennis Simon leads the pilgrimage with the SMU Chaplain’s Office.

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In the footsteps of the Little Rock Nine

An update from Michelle, a sophomore human rights and anthropology major:

This morning we woke up, scarfed our continental breakfast, and headed straight into the thick of history that was Little Rock Central High School. It was here that the “Little Rock 9” first integrated Arkansas high schools.

In the dominant narrative that most people learn in regards to this historical event, they went to the high school, people protested, the governor tried to stop it, and then the president sent soldiers who escorted the students in, and then all was well and integrated. As we have come to learn in class and readings, though, it was not quite that simple.

The nine black students who integrated Central took three weeks to get into that school. The first day, Elizabeth Eckford arrived alone. She braved a crowd of about 200 people protesting her arrival and was bombarded with terrible insults, ending the walk down the street with her handmade dress soaked in spit.

The first thing I noticed about this was just how long that street is in front of the high school. I can’t imagine having to walk down that, head held high while hundreds of people told you how they did not want you there, solely based on the color of your skin. The sheer size of the school was also something that was both impressive and a bit haunting — to have to go to a place that big, filled with people who either hated you or were afraid to associate with you, every day — as Minnijean Brown put it, was “7 hours of hell.”

Another thing I noticed immediately were the four statues on the face of the building, right above the doors; they were each labeled, reading “Ambition, Personality, Opportunity, and Preparation.” This struck me, especially the one that represented opportunity. The Little Rock 9 were coming to Central High to get equal opportunities and were blatantly denied for three weeks. Once they got into the high school, I still would not say that the educational opportunities were close to the white students’. Although they then had the same teachers and the same classes, they were subjected to daily torture; to be able to flourish in an environment like that seems nearly impossible to me.

Little Rock even closed its high schools for a year in protest of this integration. I wonder what the difference in experience would have been had all 200 students who applied to Central High been able to attend – whether it would have been better or worse for the students and the reactions of the public.

Whenever I go on trips like this, I try to put myself in the person’s shoes. In this case, I had to try to fathom what it would feel like if I were Elizabeth Eckford or any of the brave nine students. I walked up to that looming brick building, walked up those stairs, and looked at those same doors they had to pass through every day. I found that putting myself in that position was … well, just plain hard.

This was a high school, right now, that normal kids still attend. I could have very well attended this school if I had lived in Little Rock, and yet not too long ago in 1957, the atrocities that were segregation, discrimination and blatant racism were happening on those very steps and in those very halls. The place felt so normal that to try to imagine the hatred that was harbored there was outside the scope of my imagination.

The only thing that made it a little more real to me was that it was exactly like the pictures. The only difference between the pictures and what I saw was that instead of seeing a mob of angry whites crowding around Elizabeth Eckford, I saw my diverse group of civil rights pilgrims standing there, or sitting on top of the “Little Rock Central High School” sign. I saw ROTC students of all races and colors running around the campus. And those sights I saw today were what made me leave with hope in people and the progress that we have made and can continue to make.

Being at that school brought history to life. It was real, and right in front of me, in a way that was so tangible that it made it so real and so unreal at the same time.

Across the street from the high school campus was the visitor’s center for the high school; it is a National Historic Site. (Imagine going to a high school that is a National Historic Site, in front of which state officials every so often give talks!) There we watched a short documentary on the events that happened at Little Rock Central High, and this quote really stood out to me: “Hate is much easier to organize than understanding.” It is a line that applies not only to the events of Central High, not only to the Civil Rights Movement, but also to humanity.

What is easy is not always right, and what is right is not always easy. The Little Rock 9 chose their struggle for not only the betterment of their own lives, but also for the rights of their fellow man. The people who protested their integration of Central were those who chose what was easy at the time, what was expected of them. If we all did that, I would fear for the world we live in. The Little Rock 9 did more than integrate an Arkansas high school, but set an example for their fellow man as to how to do what is right, despite the consequences.

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