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Desegregation Pioneers Reflect on Education Milestone

September 25, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Fifty years ago, nine black students entered Little Rock Central High School, marking a critical moment in the efforts to desegregate the nation's schools. Seven of the "Little Rock Nine" recall their experiences.
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GWEN IFILL: All they wanted to do was go to class, up the 57 steps that lead to the front doors of Little Rock Central High School. But for nine black students — only 14, 15, and 16 years old at the time — going back to school that September of 1957, two years after the Supreme Court decreed that all-white schools like Central must be integrated, would not be that simple.

Over the course of three weeks, they were blocked, spat upon, harassed. Their supporters were attacked. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, declaring that “blood will run in the streets” if the integration went forward, called out the Arkansas National Guard to stop them. It took President Dwight D. Eisenhower to trump Faubus by sending in the Army 101st Airborne Division to enforce the law.

Fifty years later, the nine teenagers are approaching or past retirement age. And when they see each other now, it is to celebrate: a congressional gold medal; a commemorative stamp; and, in 2005, the unveiling of bronze statues capturing their fateful walk on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol.

This weekend, thousands gathered to salute the nine at their old high school, which is still open, and at the unveiling of a new National Parks Service visitors’ center across the street.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), Georgia: You displayed what I like to call raw courage. But I’ve asked my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, “Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?” They would have said, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.” But you, in 1957, got in the way. You got in trouble. It was good trouble. It was necessary trouble. You inspired all of us to get in trouble.

GWEN IFILL: In Little Rock today, civil rights icons joined former president and former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton in noting the half-century mark.

BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: This day should be about gratitude for all of us. You should think about — every one of you in your life — what it is you have to be grateful for to the Little Rock Nine. I am grateful for the lives these people have lived.

And I hope the students listen most closely of all. Look what they all did with their lives because they developed their minds when they were young. They fought for the right to do it. We celebrate the triumph of a struggle today, but we dare not forget what they did with the gift they were given. We all have to do the same with the gifts we are given.

Every one of you has got a good mind. Every one of you can develop it. Every one of you can make more of your lives. These people came to this school because they wanted a life, a life, a real life, a chance to succeed and fail, to dream and go. And I’m grateful for their lives, and I love listening to them.

Remembering the walk into school

Gloria Ray Karlmark
Little Rock Nine
It's painful to be here with these nine wonderful people, because we don't have happy memories together. It was a tough year. It's a year to be proud of at Central High School, but it was by no means easy.

GWEN IFILL: We met with seven of the nine this weekend inside the school library of the building they fought to enter 50 years ago, Little Rock Central.

Elizabeth, yours is the face that people have frozen in their minds, your incredible self-possession, your not talking back, your not reacting, your just trying to go to school.

ELIZABETH ECKFORD, Member, The Little Rock Nine: I was in shock, because I thought the soldiers were there to protect all students. It was after the third attempt to get into school that I was turned away to these angry people.

And I had been taught to look to adults for help, and I did, but the woman I thought was kind spat on me. So it was such a shocking, terrifying event that seemed to last a very long time before I could get away. But it transformed me over a period of time. I had been a very, very shy, submissive child. I can never be that again. I'm an assertive person now.

GWEN IFILL: Gloria Ray Karlmark, when you look at those pictures, do you see yourself or is it kind of an out-of-body experience?

GLORIA RAY KARLMARK, Member, The Little Rock Nine: It's sort of an out-of-body experience, and it really has been from the very first day, when the soldiers blocked my entrance to the school. I usually say that Gloria Ray, the child, ceased to exist at that moment. I became more -- a question of a principle.

I see there the girl who thought that she would be welcomed to the Central High School and was rejected in a way that was beyond her imagination from the community that she lived in all of her life. But for me, I try actually not even to look at those old pictures, because it's a lost childhood to me.

GWEN IFILL: But it's painful now sometimes to think back?

GLORIA RAY KARLMARK: Yes, oh, it's very painful for me to look at these old pictures. To a certain extent, it's painful to be here with these nine wonderful people, because we don't have happy memories together. It was a tough year. It's a year to be proud of at Central High School, but it was by no means easy.

And I love the Little Rock Nine, but for me it's a memory of a daily struggle. Each day, you just hope you can go on in there and that you can come out alive to live to go in there the next day.

Bigger than a personal education

Terence Roberts
Little Rock Nine
Are we willing to confront our racist past in an effort to redeem the present and make plans for the future? Are we willing to confront self, about what we are doing to support this status quo?

GWEN IFILL: Ernest Green, pick up from that. Do you have the same kind of feelings looking back at it?

ERNEST GREEN, Member, The Little Rock Nine: Well, sometimes I described it -- it was a bad job. But I always thought that, you know, each of us in our own way knew that we were doing something a little bit bigger than our personal education.

We were aware that changes, at least for me, this was a year or two after the Montgomery bus boycott. So coming in here, none of us expected the governor of the state of Arkansas to use troops with bayonets to bar our entrance. I mean, that was right outside this door, on both 14th and 16th Street on Park. That's why, in a certain sense, this is like nine people who -- this was a club that was formed on September 5th. Membership was closed, and nobody else can ever enter it. And we are a very tight bond.

GWEN IFILL: Terrence Roberts, I want to go to you. When you come back and you see this echo of what you accomplished 50 years ago, does it make you feel as if a lot has been done since then?

TERRENCE ROBERTS, Member, The Little Rock Nine: In a way, yes. I realize that a lot of changes have occurred. But I see those mainly as surface changes.

I often talk about it as being a thin veneer of civility, where on the surface, when we were back in Little Rock, people are very nice to us. They treated us as if we are really human beings, as opposed to how they treated us in 1957, but I think and feel that, underneath all of that, there's still bubbles, some unanswered questions about who we are as a nation of people.

GWEN IFILL: What are the questions?

TERRENCE ROBERTS: Are we willing to confront our racist past in an effort to redeem the present and make plans for the future? Are we willing to confront self, about what we are doing to support this status quo? Are we willing to really involve ourselves in meaningful change, or are we going to be content to allow things to drift along as they are?

Reactions to the Jena case

Melba Pattillo Beals
Little Rock Nine
We have to move forward, because there is no going backwards. The question is: How will we choose to go forward?

GWEN IFILL: Carlotta Walls LaNier, just last week we all saw what happened in Jena, Louisiana. Did it invoke anything for you?

CARLOTTA WALLS LANIER, Member, The Little Rock Nine: It just brought back those memories of the '60s, too, as far as demonstrations and so forth. And, really, I think it is something that the country needs to be more aware of. We think we've made a lot of progress, and we have.

GWEN IFILL: Does it make you worry at all that the sacrifice that you made integrating this school has been squandered?

CARLOTTA WALLS LANIER: It does bother me that we take two steps forward and then three steps back.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Beals, let me ask you the same question. When you watch what's happening now, as opposed to what you experienced then, do you see progress? Do you see -- does it feel like we're stuck?

MELBA PATTILLO BEALS, Member, The Little Rock Nine: No, inexorable progress. We can never go back to where we were prior to the Central High School experience, because what we did was set a new playing field. Other than, "Please, will you give us?" And we finally said, "Hey, we're going to make you an offer that you can't refuse."

And by use of the troops and the tone that was set, it changed things, it altered things. So we are moving forward -- sometimes slowly, and sometimes with speed -- but the point is we are moving forward, and it is a lesson to be learned by everybody involved. We have to move forward, because there is no going backwards. The question is: How will we choose to go forward?

GWEN IFILL: Minnijean Brown-Trickey, when you think back 50 years -- many of us have trouble remembering back yesterday -- think back 50 years. Are those memories very sharp for you? Do they stick, or is it a blur?

MINNIJEAN BROWN-TRICKEY, Member, The Little Rock Nine: Well, it's both. And sometimes, when I watch the footage, I'm amazed at those beautiful, innocent, amazing children. I'm fascinated by them and really feel very proud of them.

So we do have those records, and it serves two functions. The film, images in black and white, say, "You can't say it didn't happen, because it's there," and they evoke for me sometimes amazing emotional response. Most of the time, I'm OK with them, but on occasion I'm just floored by those.

GLORIA RAY KARLMARK: An important ingredient in what happened 50 years ago was the parents, our nine sets of parents, and their generation, I mean, that was a generation that taught us to seek knowledge, to seek skills, and to give to our community, to give back, that that was the ultimate goal, to get the skills and knowledge so you could then help someone else.

Changing the Nine's lives

Minnijean Brown-Trickey
Little Rock Nine
We were children. But I want to talk about the rod of steel that came up in our backs somehow on the first day and tell young people, 'You, too, have this. You, too, are capable of changing the world, but you have to be open to want to change it.'

GWEN IFILL: So, Carlotta, how did this change your life?

CARLOTTA WALLS LANIER: Oh, how did it change my life? I've just enjoyed being able to see all the progress that has taken place from that first day. We're giving back to this community, not only to this community, the communities throughout the United States, either through discussion with colleges, college students or high school students or what have you. So I don't think I would be in that position doing those sort of things that had not been a part of this.

GWEN IFILL: Melba, the same question to you. How did it change your life, and why do you come back?

MELBA PATTILLO BEALS, Member, The Little Rock Nine: It changed my life incredibly. I observed the newscasters. And as a result of that, I grew up to become a NBC newscaster and an ABC Radio talk show hostess. I've seen so much of the world that I might not have seen.

And as I have seen that part of the world, it has done nothing but confirm the fact that we've made the right decision. Each of us as an individual in this world must claim our own equal rights. Nobody's giving them out. If we had waited for the people in Little Rock to say, "Y'all come. Come on to Central High School. We want to welcome you," we'd have been waiting until now.

So we did the right thing. And it did make a difference, and it's taken me all these years. Now I'm 66 years of age. And when I look back, I know the truth, and the truth is we gave personal best. And in exchange for that, we have suffered a bit, but overall, as Martin Luther King put it, we didn't do it for ourselves. We did it for the generations yet to come.

TERRENCE ROBERTS: I was just thinking that, perhaps, my choice of profession, clinical psychology, is probably a direct result of having been here, seeing so many crazy people, trying to figure out, what makes these folk operate in the universe? And how do you fix your face to twist it in such contorted fashion to give us messages of hate?

GWEN IFILL: Why do you come back?

TERRENCE ROBERTS: Oh, I come back, as I go everywhere, to talk to people about the importance of being aware of what has happened, because I firmly believed -- believe, rather -- that unless we understand what has happened, we have no clue about what's happening now, because all things are connected. You know, all things that happened before have an impact.

MINNIJEAN BROWN-TRICKEY: The Little Rock Nine transformed the world, and that's a really important aspect of what we need to look at. I think it transformed me. It sent me on a -- you know, I really didn't understand it. I didn't understand hate. I didn't understand what happened.

So it sent me on this sort of quest to get a sense of what happened and why it happened. We were children. But I want to talk about the rod of steel that came up in our backs somehow on the first day and tell young people, "You, too, have this. You, too, are capable of changing the world, but you have to be open to want to change it."

GWEN IFILL: Gloria, transformative?

GLORIA RAY KARLMARK: Yes, it affected my life in a major sort of way, because I can say, at the age of 14, I decided what quality of life was worth living for me and what quality was not. And with those kinds of values -- I was a Christian. I truly believed that we were all God's children, and I couldn't understand what was happening here, so I decided what I do believe in and to pursue it.

That is to say, I realized that I was at a point where I had to dare to do what I truly thought was right and what I believed in. And that is something that has followed me throughout my long career. I've very often been in a situation where I was the only one like me who was doing that at Central High.

At Central High, it was being one of the nine black students. Later on, I became being a female in a male engineering school. But the stamina and, well, the experiences of being at this school, that if you take one step at a time, and you firmly believe what you're doing is right, then there will be an opportunity to take the next step and the next step.

And that started really when the bubble burst, with the soldier standing in front of me with his rifle, saying, "No, you can't have that good education that they're offering inside that school." And I said, "I'll get that education or I'll die for it."

GWEN IFILL: This has been an amazing 50 years in history and in your lives. And I'm curious about what you see being the fruit of that for the next 50 years, for your kids and your kids' kids.

ERNEST GREEN: If there's any lesson to transmit for the future, I mean, that seems to me the lesson here, that no matter how dark, how much hatred, how much people trip you, clip you, knock you -- I've said the Little Rock School Board must have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying us books. They bought us books about every week, because they were always breaking into our lockers, and taking our papers, and doing all these things.

But the life lesson, I think, that we're able to transmit is that it is possible, even looking at 50 years later, to overcome that, go beyond that, be able to build on that, and try to make something else out of your life. And that's what I think has been accomplished.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you all for taking time out of your 50th anniversary observance weekend to speak with us.

JIM LEHRER: For more on this story, visit our Web site at PBS.org.