Four days of events marking the 60th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School got underway Friday with the eight surviving members of the Little Rock Nine speaking to reporters. It comes amid a time of uncertainty for public schools as Arkansas has seen a rapid growth of publicly funded charter schools and what some view as a resegregating of schools.
This year is also significant as the first time that anniversary events have been held since the death of Jefferson Thomas on September 5, 2010 from pancreatic cancer. The others, who are now in their 70s, noted the sadness of his passing and that they are no longer together as a unit. But there was also a sense of celebration.
"For us to get together after 60 years is an amazing feat and I think that deserves a round of applause in itself," said Ernest Green, who spoke alongside the others at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. They discussed what it was like in 1957 to be at the center of an internationally watched fight, with Gov. Orval Faubus calling out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from attending Central High, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower responding by sending U.S. Army troops to enforce the integration.
"When we got there and saw the soldiers and bayonets and all that, I think for me a light went on inside my head that this was obviously something more important than my going to class, and that if this was that big a deal then I want to see it through," Green said.
It was a tumultuous time for the U.S. with Little Rock being one of the flashpoints in the civil rights struggle. Black and white photographs and news footage captured the scene of jeering segregationist mobs and the nine teenagers caught in the middle.
Carlotta Walls LaNier said the strength for each to have such a public role in the integration of the school came from their parents.
"We had good foundations, all of us, and the real heroes and sheroes, we’re sitting up here, but the real heroes and sheroes are really the parents,” Lanier said with others agreeing, “and you really have to stop and think about that, if you’ll let your child continue to go to Little Rock Central High School under those circumstances, that they did not know it was going to happen that way."
But after decades of what they say seemed like progress in race relations and improving education, today the Little Rock School District is under state control. Critics say publicly funded charter schools are undermining traditional public school districts.
The theme of this year’s official events is "Reflections of Progress," but Terrence Roberts said that might not be appropriate.
"I would suggest that we focus not so much on progress, because that suggests that something has really happened in a progressive way. I think all the indicators suggest that we have a very long way to go before we can even begin to use the word progress," Roberts said.
Counter events, with the theme "Sixty Years: Still Fighting" are planned for Saturday afternoon at the state Capitol. The two members of the Little Rock Nine who still live in the city – Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Mothershed Wair – are scheduled to take part. A press release by Grassroots Arkansas says the events will be a "national conversation about the preservation of the legacy of public school students, the Little Rock Nine, and community supporters who have challenged us to continue fighting for excellent public schools for all students in every neighborhood and every city in our nation."
During Friday’s press conference, Melba Beals said that while there are problems today, she and the other surviving members of the Little Rock Nine believe the official events are appropriate.
"Oh yeah, I thought that we would be much farther ahead today than we are," she said. "I disagree with the people who find fault with the Little Rock system spending money to do this. I think that unless we stop and measure how far we’ve come today, we’re not necessarily inspired to do the fight that it’s going to take to take this battle where it needs to go."
Minnijean Brown Trickey discussed mortality and the hope that their presence on this 60th anniversary will prompt "authentic" talks that hopefully will continue for years to come.
"We come to cause you to have discussions after we’re gone. Okay, we also come to see each other and see our children, but if we are successful in what we do, you will be talking about us or about the issues for a long time. That’s our role to catalyze discussion and thought and critical… everything," Trickey said.
The series of events will culminate Monday with the members of the Little Rock Nine joining former President Bill Clinton for a ceremony inside the auditorium of the school.