In school, kids learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but they don’t always learn about the Little Rock Nine.
In 1957, nine African American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. All of the students at the school were white and the governor opposed integration, in spite of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The ruling declared that any laws establishing segregated schools were unconstitutional, yet opposition to integration was strong at all levels of society. Prejudice and racism were widespread and it was a time of upheaval and change. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ultimately intervened and law enforcement officials were called in to ensure that the nine Black students would be safe as they walked into the school for the first time.
Fifteen-year-old Carlotta Walls LaNier was one of these students. As armed guards accompanied her to class, white students called her names and hurled spit at her. Over the next few months and years, the bullying and verbal abuse continued, yet the Little Rock Nine stayed in school. LaNier went on to complete college, start a real estate brokerage and serve in many positions in organizations. In 1999, former President Bill Clinton awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to LaNier and the other eight students from Little Rock. Today, LaNier lives in Denver and speaks publicly about her experiences. Before meeting her, I read her book “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.” As I reflect on her experience in high school, I can’t imagine walking in her shoes.
Like LaNier, James Meredith broke barriers throughout his lifetime and paved the way for others. Meredith grew up in Mississippi and after completing high school, he served nine years in the U.S. Air Force. In 1961, he applied to the University of Mississippi and was denied admission twice to the all-white educational institution. After filing a lawsuit against the university, the case made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which sided on his behalf by ruling that Meredith had a right to be admitted. But instead of complying with the ruling, the State of Mississippi appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In short order, the Supreme Court supported the initial ruling despite the opposition of the governor of Mississippi. Back on the University of Mississippi campus, riots broke out which prompted U.S. Attorney Gen. Robert Kennedy to call in the U.S. Marshals to bolster local law enforcement. On Sept. 29, 1962, James Meredith arrived on campus to register and begin classes, thus breaking the barrier to the integration of universities and colleges across the country. In spite of harassment, isolation, and bigotry, Meredith graduated with an undergraduate degree in political science and later completed a law degree at Columbia University. He has continued to devote his life to the concepts of equal rights for all citizens.
These were pivotal moments in the civil rights movement as formerly all-white institutions of higher education began the process of integration. Alongside these changes, segregated public buses became a thing of the past, partly due to the Freedom Riders. Separate drinking fountains and restaurant counters for Blacks and whites were prohibited and fair housing laws were passed to ban discrimination in home buying. Things changed slowly as people of all ages took steps to improve the country.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen countless acts of courage and compassion in the news. Last week, after a Black man saw a white man lying on the ground in the middle of a crowded city protest, he lifted him up and carried him to safety. During some of the protests, citizens tried to protect journalists but unfortunately, dozens of journalists have been injured.
Confederate flags and statues have been removed from buildings and public places across the nation and several stereotypical images have disappeared from grocery store shelves. Goodbye Aunt Jemima, Land O’Lakes woman and Cream of Wheat man. Goodbye Uncle Ben and so long Eskimo Pies. These changes are long overdue.
As the pandemic continues, our nation is facing a moral crisis to combat systemic racism and inequality. We must address these challenges or they will linger, simmering under the surface until they boil over with rage and violence.
So, please wear a mask. Extend a hand. Tell the truth. Speak out because it’s the moral thing to do. That is what is demanded of us now and courage is what we must call forth. Just as those who came before us.
Julie Richman is a freelance writer, project manager and consultant. She and her family have lived on Colorado Springs’ northeast side for 21 years. Contact Julie with comments or ideas for her column at email@example.com.