A Quarter Century Later, the Nine Children of Little Rock Remember the Gains and Sorrow of Their Integration Battle
A year earlier a federal court had ordered the city to desegregate its public schools. Claiming that integration meant violence, Gov. Orval E. Faubus defied the court, declaring the school "off limits" to black students and calling in the Arkansas National Guard to enforce his edict. After angry whites rioted outside the school, President Dwight Eisenhower dispatched 1,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to escort the black students past the roiling mob. The troops remained while the "Little Rock Nine" attended classes amid threats, verbal abuse and violence.
Today Central High is peacefully integrated, and 55 percent of the student body is black. Those nine civil rights pioneers, meanwhile, have scattered across the U.S. and beyond. On the following pages, several of them reflect on the legacy of their ordeal 25 years earlier. First is a memoir of the Central High experience by Melba Pattillo Beals, who left Little Rock and went on to become a television reporter and writer—for PEOPLE, among other periodicals—before starting a public relations firm in San Francisco.
I was amazed when we arrived at the school. There were hundreds and hundreds of sweating white faces gone red with anger and the heat of the day. Mother and I parked and walked toward the back of the crowd. We thought the school was on fire. It was, aflame with hate. We looked across the street and there was Elizabeth Eckford, another one of "the nine," walking down the sidewalk. They were screaming at Elizabeth, "Get that nigger!" Suddenly they turned, and there we were. Mother threw the car keys at me and said, "Run and roll up the windows and lock the doors." I was crying, "Mama! Mama!" And she said, "Run! I'll get there if I can." We ran and jumped in and shoved the car in reverse, while people were banging it, shaking it, and shouting, "Hey, we got us a nigger to hang."
We made it home. My grandmother was very strong, and she calmed everything down. People, our friends, began guarding the house. This was when I started not to eat or to sleep. It was as if there were a big concrete knot in my stomach, and it stayed.
Then came "Mob Monday," Sept. 23, 1957. I was a junior, 16 years old. Schools had closed for a few weeks, but the courts ordered them to open, and they did. I got all dressed up again. I remember worrying as I walked across our lawn that my brown-and-white saddles were getting scuffed and my mother would be upset. Four of us girls drove in a car with one of the daddies. I was joking, but we were frightened. The only reason we got into the school that day was because a LIFE magazine reporter was getting beat up on the front lawn, and we slipped in through a side door.
My first class was shorthand. Mrs. Pickwick had a schoolmarm look, but she was the one woman who treated me fairly throughout the year. Outside I kept hearing what sounded like the roar at a football game. When I walked down the hall to social studies class a parent came up and slapped me hard in the face. It was the first time anyone had ever done that. I wanted to cry, but I wouldn't give her the satisfaction. In the middle of the day we were sent to the principal's office. We called him "Smiling Jess" Matthews because all that year we'd be on the floor being kicked and he'd smile his way through it. The building was under siege, and two men were saying they might have to sacrifice one of us to the crowd to get the other eight out. Finally it was decided to take us out in two cars from the basement garage. I remember looking up from under the seat as we raced out of there and seeing hands grabbing for the car and hearing gunshots and things pounding the car.
In the middle of the night this guy came to our house. It was hot, but he was wearing a hat and an overcoat. He had a letter from President Eisenhower that said, "Let your daughter go back to school and we will protect her." Next day the 101st Airborne arrived. People think of Eisenhower as a President who played golf, but for me he'll always be the one who cared enough about my life to send the troops.
This time when we went back things were different. The mob was there, but the soldiers kept them away from us. We even had guards at home. My bodyguard at school was a man named Johnny Black—dark hair, five-foot-seven, who had a blackjack at his side. He was young and white and from the South. It entered my mind, "What would he do if someone came at me?" Then one day someone threw acid into my eyes. Johnny grabbed me by the braids, dragged me over to the fountain and jammed my head under the water. He was quick, but my left eye was slightly damaged. I hadn't talked to him much, but I trusted him then, and we began to talk a lot more.
Over the course of the year they did everything to me. I'd take a shower after gym, and suddenly it would turn scalding. Once I was on the playing field and a girl ran up and pushed me onto a pile of broken glass. I had to have hundreds of books because they were always in shreds. I came to understand how you survive in a war. At some point it no longer frightens you. Every day I'd walk the 13 steps to the door of the school and recite the Lord's Prayer, like my grandmother told me. But after a while I was just numb. I'd think, "Hey, I might die here." Then I'd say, "That's cool. It's okay if I die." In December Minnijean Brown was expelled for dumping a bowl of chili over a guy's head. My only real act of rebellion was burning my books on the last day of school. I knew I would never go back. I felt that a core of steel had been put in my spine—that there was nothing you could ever threaten me with that I couldn't survive.
That summer all nine of us went around the country on a speaking tour. We met Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Robert Frost wrote a poem for me; many people sent loving letters. The nine of us became extremely close. In Little Rock, we weren't accepted by the whites, and then many blacks shut us out because they were suffering from what we did.
A year later the NAACP found a home for me with Dr. and Mrs. George McCabe, a white family in Santa Rosa, Calif. I went to Berkeley, but it was too big, so I switched to San Francisco State, where I stayed for two years. I left to marry a white man who, when I met him, was wearing an Army uniform and a gun. It was perfectly logical—he was a symbol of protection to me. I had seen my father and uncles, fearing for their lives, back down to white threats. We were married in 1962, and Kellie, our daughter, was born in August 1963. Six years later I got a divorce. My husband wanted a housewife, but my family had always prodded me toward education and higher achievement.
Kellie and I lived in a housing project while I went back to finish my bachelor's in sociology and journalism. Then I went to New York to take a graduate degree in broadcast journalism at Columbia. In the '70s I worked as a TV reporter in San Francisco and freelanced for magazines. Today Kellie studies theater at UCLA and models, and I've got a thriving public relations business in San Francisco.
Little Rock affected us all. I harbor no ill feelings against whites. Evil knows no color. After I left Little Rock, my life was essentially in the white world. But I get overwhelmed with despair today when I see reversals of those achievements in desegregating schools. People fought and paid for those gains with their blood, sometimes their lives. How should I put this? The mere fact that integration is even a topic for discussion 25 years after Little Rock tears at my soul. Why, I ask you, do the warriors on this battlefield always have to be children?
Ernest Green found Little Rock a source of strength
On May 27, 1958, 620 cap-and-gown-clad graduates filed across the white lines of Central High School's football field to pick up their diplomas. Only one of them—Ernest Green, the sole senior among the "Little Rock Nine"—was black. "The thought in the back of my mind," he remembers, "was that they would never be able to say this institution did not have at least one black graduate." By then his courage had earned him the grudging admiration of many of his classmates. "I really admire you, Ernest," one white girl wrote in his copy of The Pic, the Central High yearbook. "I doubt if I could have done half so well had the circumstances been reversed. May you achieve all your goals."
Green, now 41, has achieved more than most Americans, white or black. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in sociology from Michigan State University, he became a field-worker for the Joint Apprenticeship Program, a small New York group trying to bring minorities into the building trades. By the late '70s the agency had expanded across the country and Green was its executive director. In 1977 Jimmy Carter appointed Green Assistant Secretary of Labor with responsibility for administering a massive federal job-training program. "It was difficult, complex and different from advocacy," Green says, "but I found it rewarding."
When Carter left office, so did Green, who promptly founded a successful consulting firm that provides management and marketing advice for black-owned businesses. Now divorced and living in a handsome Washington town house furnished with Persian rugs and African art, Green sees his Little Rock experiences as stepping stones to success. "It helped to politicize me, and it opened up contacts," he says. "With that and some assertiveness, it's been a very positive affair for me."
Carlotta LaNier's kids view 1957 as ancient history
"You'll be talking to people and they will say they can't believe it happened in the U.S.," says Carlotta Walls LaNier, now 39. "Well, it did and I'm a witness to it." LaNier, a former real estate broker and now a housewife, lives in Fresno, Calif. with her husband, Ira, a marketing manager for IBM, and their two children. Times and America have changed so markedly that her children do not comprehend the violent racism of Little Rock in 1957. "I took them around Central High the last time we went back," she says. "But it's hard for them to understand that as a black you couldn't go to the school of your choice, or swim in the city pool. My emphasis now in raising my children is to see that they are exposed to as much as possible."
Terrence Roberts remains angry about racism
Terrence Roberts is now 40, but the last 25 years have not blunted his anger over racism in America—and in Little Rock. "People talk about how the blacks have made progress, but this has been for a privileged few." Roberts quickly concedes that he is among them. A psychologist at St. Helena's Hospital in California's Napa Valley, he is the father of two daughters, Rebecca, 18, a Stanford freshman, and Angela, 20, a sophomore at San Francisco State. He says, "It boggles the mind when you consider the talent, ambition and potential of blacks. We have all this diversity and yet it is still a tremendous struggle for the slightest gain."
Thelma Wair looks back in compassion, not anger
On visits to Little Rock, Thelma Mothershed Wair has driven past Central High School but never stepped inside. "Once was enough," she says with a smile. Despite being spat upon and pelted with rocks during her days at Central, Wair harbors no bitterness toward her white classmates. "I never felt like a victim," she says. "I understand from the Central experience that you can't hold ignorance against people. Kids learn racism at home."
Now 42, Wair lives in East St. Louis, III. with her husband, Fred, a junior high school science teacher, and their son, Scott, 8. Thelma believes that her experiences in Little Rock still help in her job as a career education counselor in the East St. Louis schools. "I think it gave me an extra dimension," she says. "I simply know more about the differences between people and I'm able to put myself in their position." Except for an occasional church lecture, Wair does not dwell on her past, but it does have a way of catching up with her. "We have a black history week in our school, and this year Scott's teacher talked about me and he came home and said, 'Mom, are you black history?' "
Little Rock's other living reminders of black history are also leading quietly successful lives. Jefferson Thomas, 39, is a finance clerk for the Defense Department in Los Angeles. Gloria Ray Karlmark, 39, lives in Waterloo, Belgium, where she manages a telecommunications company and edits a computer journal. Minnijean Brown Trickey, 42, expelled from Central High when she dumped a bowl of chili over the head of a white tormentor, lives on a northern Canadian farm and is active in the conservation and antinuclear movements. She and her zoologist husband have six children.
For Elizabeth Eckford, trauma lingers
In the dining room of her Little Rock home, Elizabeth Eckford dabs her reddened eyes with a dish towel, trying in vain to blot away her tears. Articulate on other topics, she lapses into a stutter when she discusses her painful year at Central High School. "I've got to get to the point where I can talk about this," she says. "Until then, it will never be over for me."
A quarter century later, the psychological scarring of what she calls "the incident" still mars Eckford's life. "Some things trigger memories," she explains. "When I'm suddenly jostled in a crowd, for instance, I'll remember being slammed against locker doors at school." Elizabeth's friends say she never recovered from the ordeal of her first day at Central High. Unaware that the other black students were entering school as a group, she faced the jeering mob of whites alone. Melba Pattillo was a shocked witness: "They were screaming at Elizabeth, 'Get that nigger.' It was like the roar at a football game."
Now 40, Eckford has spent the last 25 years trying to forget that experience. She left Little Rock in 1959, attended two small colleges, served a stint as an information specialist in the Army, and earned a degree in history from Ohio's Central State University. Her two children, Erin, 6, and Calvin, 3, are the joy of her life. She came home to Little Rock in 1974 still suffering from searing flashbacks which left her unable to handle the pressures of a job.
While she attempts to work out her emotional problems with a psychiatrist, she lives like "a hermit and a recluse," she says, supporting her children on a veteran's disability pension and tending to her flower garden. She refuses to be photographed and deliberately skipped the NAACP's reunion of the "Little Rock Nine" last May because she didn't want to dredge up any more memories. "I don't remember many of the details of that year," she says. "I had nasty notes passed to me and I was spat upon. Those things I remember. One time I got on a city bus by myself. When I got off, they threw rocks at me." She wipes her overflowing eyes and apologizes. "I anticipated I would have problems talking about it," she says, "but I didn't know it would be this bad."