After spending the past few years re-reading “Warriors Don’t Cry” and teaching my students about Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine, going to visit Central High School, the sight of the famous school desegregation crisis was a must while in Arkansas. I even did some pre-travel research (very, very rare for me) by scribbling down the address of the high school (which, being in operation, the general public cannot tour unless prior arrangements are made) and the small museum around the corner.
Mom and I pulled into Little Rock around lunch time. We figured that we would spend an hour checking out the school and museum, have lunch, hit Clinton’s Presidential Library, and be out of the town by that evening.
But that small museum held us captive for hours. I’m not really a museum person, but this tiny one was exceptional. Every plaque, picture, audio clip, news reel, video montage, and taped interview was captivating. Perhaps this museum was interesting to me because I’d read so much about the event (it is usually more interesting to learn about things you already know about, hence the educational buzz-phrase “activate prior knowledge”), perhaps the museum was exceptionally well-put-together, or perhaps the subject matter is just inherently interesting. Whatever the case, mom and I forgot that we were hungry and didn’t have hotel reservations in Little Rock, and we spent hours soaking up the museum. The museum doesn’t just tell the story the integration of Little Rock, but begins with exhibits on slavery and key Supreme Court decisions regarding Jim Crowe laws.
Then comes the story of the Brown v Board decision, the first attempt at integration, the segregationists protests, how Arkansas’s Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the students from entering the school, how President Eisenhower had to send THE FREAKIN’ US ARMY down to Little Rock to ensure that nine students could attend school, and how Faubus closed public schools the next year. Especially well done were the video news clips of the time spliced with interviews from the nine high school students who desegregated the high school.
As mom and I nearing the pictures of Bill Clinton standing with the (now much older) former students, we were thinking that we should probably tear ourselves away from the museum. Then we started talking to an older couple who were there with their two grandchildren. They were long time Little Rock locals. The grandma was busy urging her middle-school aged grandkids to “pay attention! This is the reason you can go to good schools!” but the grandfather stopped and talked to mom and I for a long time, pointing out one of the Little Rock Nine students that he’d grown up with and reminiscing about what it was like to be a young black man in Little Rock in 1957 (Which can be broadly summarized as “scary”).
As Mom and I walked down the street to Central High, I tried to picture the hate mobs that blocked the very street we were walking on fifty years earlier.
Despite the fact that I’d just seen footage of this street, crowded with angry people in fifties haircuts, I just couldn’t imagine such a thing occurring here, on this quiet street, in front of this gorgeous school.
Despite the fact that I’d read about governor Faubus: a man who would close all public schools rather than have them integrated, I can’t imagine such a man would exist, and I can’t imagine a population of people who would vote for him.
Despite the fact that I’d read, learned, and taught others about the hardships nine high school students faced while simply attending school, I can’t imagine the spitting and kicking and threats of lynching that occurred here.
Despite the fact that I’d just talked to a man who’d lived through it, I can’t imagine that any of this happened. It all seems like a made up story, or something that happened in some far away country, a long time ago.
Not something that could happen in my country.