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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The long walk to Little Rock Central High

An update from Hiba, a junior majoring in biochemistry and human rights with a minor in Arabic:

“The task that remains is to cope with our interdependence – to see ourselves reflected in every other human being and to respect and honor our differences.”

– Melba Beals

In 1957, nine warriors chose to cross a wide threshold (in reality, only a few yards), separating what society deemed appropriate and what they knew to be true. They stepped onto Little Rock Central High School’s campus, and history was made. Nine warriors –probably a better description would be nine teenagers, who were at most five years younger than me – represented the first steps toward actualized equality by walking into the high school.

Today, as our first day on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I got to see their battleground – a place where 15-year-olds and 17-year-olds spat, ridiculed, and hurt the Little Rock Nine, one of whom was Melba Beals.

When our bus first stopped a street down from Little Rock Central High School, I looked at it with one of those cursory “oh-this-looks-like-the-picture-I-saw-in-my-high-school-textbook-next-to-desegregating-schools-cool.”

We got out of the bus; one by one the 30 or so students on the trip got down to look at the memorial a street from the school — far enough to where the Little Rock school wasn’t the focus of my attention but near enough for me to notice its presence. We looked at the memorial: pictures of the Little Rock 9 walking into the school buildings, the National Guard that escorted these teenagers into their classes, etc. Still, I wasn’t fazed —I had read the book Warriors Don’t Cry, I had listened to the lectures in my Civil Rights class, and I had read textbooks. I cried when I read the book. I felt terrible and guilty when I learned about it in history books. This was no big deal.

But then, we started walking. It wasn’t a super long walk, but, like any horribly out of shape college student whose idea of exercise is the walk to Mac’s Place for a late dinner around 11:30, I noticed every step I took to the building. And, as I walked toward the building, everything made sense. The steps I was taking so grudgingly were the same steps that Elizabeth Eckford took her first day of school. And I noticed things, scary things.

First, I noticed how big the looming building was. Now, I come from a pretty big high school, but this building was huge! There are statues at the top in the middle of the building that I liken to the creepy gargoyle figures you see in medieval-type churches. For anyone who doesn’t know, gargoyles equal evil. The building architecture is kind of cool, but it seems out of place for a high school. They have a pond sort of thing in the front of their high school. There are long pillars that I always associated with antebellum-period houses. I wondered if these were the things Elizabeth Eckford noticed when she walked to her battleground. Did she seem daunted by the antebellum-looking pillars? Did she get scared by the gargoyles? Did she want to run away?

Then, I noticed how long and empty the street was where I was walking.  We were there on a Saturday, so it makes sense for the street to be empty of people.

But, then I imagined the street with people.

Tons and tons of people.

Adults with scornful looks on their faces.

Apologetic adults who would turn their heads away from me even though they’re presence was to support segregation.

My future classmates glaring at me, maybe making fun of my clothes or my looks or my people.

News cameras asking me what the hell I was doing here.

And then, my friends — sure, I might not know their names and they were in different grades — but they believed in my cause, they believed in interdependence, they believed in humanity that goes beyond color, race, and, hopefully, religion and sex as well.

And, then, walking toward it all, knowing that life would be hard, that people would hurt you, feeling like it might be ok.

That is, until the first person spits at you. And reality hits. It wasn’t going to be ok for a long time … and then some more.

Looking at Little Rock Central High School up close held meaning for me at that moment because I understood the unsaid words written in our textbooks, the feelings that might have been hard to describe in a memoir or a book, and that I will never be able to write in this blog.

There was fear. There was nervousness. There was anger. There was hurt. There was hope. There was a future to fight for.

Around the pond I mentioned before, there were nine stone benches with each bench engraved with the name of one of the Little Rock Nine, including that of Melba Beal. Those engraved names instill courage in those looking hard enough.

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