The Little Rock Nine Still Call to Me

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Natalie Patton -Little Black Nine3By Natalie Patton | Insta: @naticakes

If you’re an Arkansan, chances are you recognize the picture. It’s one that makes most of us cringe and close our eyes in embarrassment. Not our finest moment in Arkansas history, and one we wish never happened.

In 1954 the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregation in schools was unconstitutional under the fourteenth amendment. School boards around the country were tasked with integrating their white and black schools. There was massive resistance throughout the South. School boards dragged their feet in implementing the law, but the strongest defiance came from my beloved home state of Arkansas.

Governor Orval Faubus challenged the Supreme Court’s decision when nine black students were selected to be the first ones to integrate into Little Rock’s Central High School. Segregationist groups like the Capital Citizens Council fought tooth and nail, and the Mothers League of Central High School held a meeting at the school one early September morning to sing Dixie, fly the Confederate flag, and speak out against the atrocities of sending their white children to school with blacks. Their meeting was advertised as a “Sunrise Service,” the same words we use at Easter to celebrate the resurrection of our risen Savior.

The Mothers League encouraged the crowds to show up and resist. And mobs of angry white people descended on Central High. The nine brave students faced screaming protestors who kicked, yelled in their faces, spat on them, and threatened their families. The Governor ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block their entry into the school.

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine, recalls being alone and surrounded by an angry white mob after being turned away.

I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob–someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.

And here’s the part of the story that has always haunted me:

In a town where everybody knows everybody, I don’t know anybody who stood by the Little Rock Nine.

I love Arkansas. It will always be home to me, and I think our state has some of the most caring, generous people on the planet. Which is why it’s always been so hard for me to reconcile this. I’ve always wondered: surely, someone’s granny or great uncle reached out in some way to show the Little Rock Nine love and support. Do any of my Arkansas friends know someone who did anything? I’d love to hear about it.

Goodness gracious, where were the white Christians? In the heart of the “Bible belt,” shouldn’t they have been on the front lines, loving and serving our black brothers and sisters who deserved an equal education? Surely, somebody’s Sunday school class was on the street with baked goods and sweet words of encouragement for these courageous students, passing out bags of freshly sharpened pencils tied with gingham ribbon. But it just wasn’t so.

Eckford recounts a white reporter from New York who sat down next to her and told her not to let them see her cry.

In a televised interview years later, another one of the nine, Minnijean Brown Trickey, recounts her experience calmly and detailed, until she hit on one point and could barely finish her sentence, the pain was too great.

I think the main feeling I felt in that school was … that nobody liked me.

At the heart of it all were real people with real feelings. At the core of all of us is the desire to be loved and accepted–just as we are. And just as Christ takes us.

It’s easy to look back 60 years later and talk about it in terms of hate, but it doesn’t start in a vacuum. Hate is grown out of seeds of fear.

There have been solid attempts for racial reconciliation in our state and a lot of healing. But in my lifetime, I’ve witnessed the harvest of hate that these seeds of fear produced. If I’m completely honest here, I grew up with these fears too. In my early years, I went to public school in small town, segregated Saline County, south of Little Rock. I was so intrigued by Alice, the one black girl in my kindergarten class. I remember the green and white sweater she wore on the first day of school and the way she made me laugh. We had a mock election and the teacher had us cast our votes. She declared that she was voting for Dukakis because he was “gooooood looking!”

But I was afraid of Alice too, for no reason other than I had never played with a black child before, and I wasn’t sure if it was okay for us to be friends. Alice always wanted to play with my hair, and I thought that was weird and wasn’t sure if it was ok or not. My fears were reinforced by my teacher who would give Alice licks with a thick paddle as she lay on her red and blue plastic kindergarten mat for acting up during nap time. The bad child. My best friend and I were regular naptime offenders and never once faced the same consequences.

The Mothers League isn’t around anymore, but women still talk in hushed tones about which schools in the area are the good ones, as if “good” is some sort of code for mostly white, even though for the last decade, the top performing schools in the area are evenly integrated. White flight is exceedingly common in central Arkansas. Folks take up residence in surrounding counties sometimes for reasons none other than they don’t want their children to have to be educated alongside black people.

We say that we love everybody, but our actions don’t really show it. We mostly go to different churches, shop at different places and live in different parts of town. After all of these years, we are still afraid of black people.

Imagine how much different our race relations could be today if, instead of sowing seeds of fear, churches in Little Rock in the late 50s were on the front lines sowing seeds of peace, believing that “peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18)

Imagine if white Christians had listened to the voices of the Little Rock Nine back then, rather than decades later in an archived interview. Imagine if white church leaders had believed black church leaders in the 1950s and submitted to their leadership on how to heal the wounds of their communities.

I wonder how I would have responded if I had been around at the time of the Little Rock Nine. All I know is that this time in history is asking me to show up, speak up and walk where I see history repeating itself.

____________

About Natalie:

Natalie PattonNatalie is an overly caffeinated, partly cloudy, always scattered wife and mother of three tots living in Bangkok, Thailand. Pull up a chair, and you’ll find she’s part weirdo from being an expat in the Middle East and Asia for the better part of a decade. She’s a proud US Air Force wife who lives with the cognitive dissonance of knowing war but seeking peace. She works with Somali refugees in Bangkok. When she’s not chasing down a tuk-tuk or letting her son sample fried grub worms on the street, she is found with a good book, a good recipe, or a good song. Follow her scattered life on her blog or on Instagram.

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  • Thank you for telling this story, Natalie. As an immigrant to Canada, I hadn’t heard this story. My heart breaks for these nine women. Thank you for honouring their courage.

    • Thank you Idelette. It was still a difficult read for me, even in my own words. The nine students were mostly girls (6 of them) and 3 boys.

    • Saskia Wishart

      As a Canadian/European, I also hadn’t heard this story before, so I appreciate you sharing the courage of these, and the cowardice and fear of the mothers, in such a personal way. I pray that I see opportunities to spread love instead of hate in my own realities when they present themselves.

  • Living in the north, this story (and the horrible pictures) have always been “history” for me, but you have made it personal and spun it with a challenge. Thank you for letting us hear the voices of the Little Rock 9 today.

    • Thank you Michele. It’s always easier to read about and confront someone else’s ugly history than our own.

  • aimee_hubmann

    Let the overly caffeinated wife and mother sleep for when she wakes she will move mountains. ❤️ Have you had a chance to see the memorial on the State Capitol grounds? It’s really beautiful. 1 Samuel 16:7

    • I haven’t seen it yet! Hoping to check it out this fall when we make our pilgrimage home.

  • As a fellow native Arkansan, I totally get this. I grew up in Conway County, and we were mostly already integrated when I started school. Morrilton, Plumerville, and East Side (Menifee) schools were consolidated into one district and all the school districts redrawn to finish the desegregation when I was in 4th & 5th grade. I can remember a lot of parents – Protestants – sending their kids to the private Catholic school after that so that they wouldn’t get “bused all over the county,” but I’ve always suspected it had more to do with not wanting their kids to go to school in Menifee because it was a black community. And, you know, despite the fact that my parents tried to intentionally raise me to think of and treat black people as equals, there was still overt racism in our extended family, and less openly but still there in school and in our lily-white churches. So I still picked it up, and even with black friends. I still struggle with those biases because they were, and still are so much a part of Southern culture. I’ll watch people I grew up with on Facebook posting the Confederate Battle Flag and saying it’s “heritage, not hate,” and I just don’t get how they can be so dissociated from what that flag came to stand for even if we ignore the Civil War. Why would we want to celebrate losing a war that we weren’t even on the just side of? Anyway, I’m rambling. Thank you for sharing the story of the Little Rock 9. We should never forget how ugly that time was when fear and hatred of our fellow man was acceptable in our society, and that those were not the good ol’ days we on the privileged side pretend it was.

    • Another Arkansan…hello! We are probably kin, somehow 🙂 Thanks so much for your honesty here. So much of it is under our skin, isn’t it? Being transparent about our ingrained prejudices, I believe, is where the healing begins. Yes, I don’t understand the “sacred cow” of the Confederate battle flag, either. Nobody gave two toots about it until it was used as a rallying symbol for the Dixiecrats after WWII.

  • I read “Warriors Don’t Cry” a few years ago and it rocked me. I love this article, and your perspective about what is ongoing, so much. Incredible. Thank you.