Steve Parrish has lived in Westport for 27 years. Now retired, he and his wife Diane raised 2 Staples High School graduates, Amanda and Clay.
In September 2007, Steve was invited to the 50th anniversary commemoration of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. Before he left, he was surprised to learn that some Westporters did not know the story of the Little Rock 9.
His visit to Arkansas was very moving. When he returned to Westport, he wrote about it. Today — on the 60th anniversary of that desegregation day — he shares his thoughts with “06880” readers.
September 25, 2007. I am standing near the steps of Central High School in Little Rock with Tina Walls, my friend and colleague of almost 20 years. There are hundreds of other people on the grounds. Many are smiling and laughing. Most of them are black.
September 25, 1957. Central High School in Little Rock. Hundreds of people were there. None were smiling, and almost all were white. The crowd was there to prevent 9 African American students — 6 girls and 3 boys—from entering.
The 1957 school year was supposed to begin on September 4, But when it became known that a group of black students planned to attend, “citizens councils” were formed.
These groups demonstrated, and threatened to physically block any African American student from entering Central High. When the identities of the black students became known, their families were harassed. They received death threats.
On September 23, the 9 black students were slipped into school through a side door. When members of the mob learned what happened, they threatened to storm the building.
The next day, President Eisenhower ordered members the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to Little Rock. On September 25 — carrying bayonet rifles — they escorted the 9 black students into Central High School.
The Little Rock 9 are together again today, September 25, 2007, at Central High School. It is the 50th anniversary of the desegregation. They are on a stage built at the foot of the same steps they climbed half a century ago.
Carlotta Walls LaNier was only 14 years old that day the 101st Airborne escorted her into Central High School. Her mother Juanita also is here today. She looks beautiful, elegant and proud.
The commemoration program begins. There are speeches by the mayor, the president of the Board of Education and the governor. But it is The Little Rock 9 everyone wants to hear.
I’m not sure what I expect them to say, but I am struck by what they don’t say. They are not bitter. They are not angry.
Elizabeth Eckford tells the crowd that she has forgiven, that she doesn’t need an apology to forgive and move on. Gloria Karlmark speaks about faith, caring and sharing. She describdes the story of the Good Samaritan. Melba Beals quotes Gandhi, and says that we must be the peace we wish to see in the world.
When it is Carlotta’s turn, she talks about the importance of her family to her journey. She speaks of hope, and the promise of freedom for everyone. She says that The Little Rock 9 did not set out to change the world (although they did). They “just” wanted what they believed the Constitution gave them: the right to an education.
As Carlotta speaks, I look at her sister Tina and mother Juanita. I try to imagine what it must have been like for them. I try to put myself in Juanita’s position.
Could I have put my daughter in that car with the soldiers on September 25, 1957, not knowing what would happen? Could I have persevered through the profane phone calls, the death threats, the assaults on my child?
Now it is time for the keynote address. Bill Clinton — former Governor of Arkansas, former President of the United States — talks about the courage of the Little Rock 9 and their families. He says we should be grateful for what they did.
President Clinton tells us that is easy to have an opinion. It is easy to say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did something to change things.”
But, he continues, “these 9 people didn’t just have an opinion. They didn’t just say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did something to change things.’ These 9 people and their families stepped up and said, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me.’ ”
I look at Tina. She is crying. I look at Juanita. She is smiling — half proudly and half sadly, it seems to me.
I look at Carlotta up on that stage. Her hands cover her mouth as she tries to maintain her composure.
Then it is over. The 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony concludes. The Little Rock 9 pose for more photographs, perhaps their last ever as a group.
The crowd begins to leave. Tina and I still stand in front of the stage.
I am overwhelmed. I’m not sure what to say or what to do.
And then Tina takes me by the arm. She, Juanita and Carlotta escort me up the steps and through the front door of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.