A visit to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, a National Historic Site? Done! Ever since watching the documentary “Eyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement” and learning more about the Little Rock Nine and the events in 1957, I wanted to see this site of former social and political struggle. (I call these my “pilgrimages” to meet God and fellow human beings in a deeply challenging way.) Using religious and biblical language, this place has an aura of holiness where I want to take off my shoes like Moses in front of the burning bush.
Absolutely gorgeous and majestic building! If I did not know that it is a high school, I would think it is a big, old university or government building. Like the beautiful state capitol buildings all around the USA. To me, it looks even more majestic because of its troubled history.
To quote a History Channel website, “The Little Rock Nine were a group of nine black students who enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. Their attendance at the school was a test of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the black students’ entry into the high school. Later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.”
As we know, history is not just about facts. (Those you can learn by simply searching for ‘Little Rock Nine‘). It is about the truth that it stands for and the mirror it holds out to us. We can judge the past generations, but they always push back with a rhetorical question – what would you have done? I looked at those beautiful stairways and the large platform at the LR Central High School and though to myself, “What a stage! What a platform for the whole world to see!” Much of the Western world did watch the ugly face of blatant racism on full display.
And then I think about all the other schools and institutions around the world, past and present, which are not under such a spotlight but ,nonetheless, struggle with the same issues. ‘Us’ and ‘them’. ‘Insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Those who ‘belong and deserve’ and those who ‘don’t belong and don’t deserve’. Separating people by race, gender, language, religion, ethnicity, etc. Little Rock Central High School could be anywhere and, in some ways, it is everywhere.
Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, North America… all parts of the world. Ask the Rohingya in Burma, ask tribal people or anyone with dark skin in Thailand, ask Aboriginal Australians, ask the Gypsies in Latvia and other European countries, ask the Sudanese in Egypt… I think of all the conversations I have had with friends who have experienced different forms of racial prejudice.
Racism comes in many shades of attitudes and forms. I never knew I could think as racist and speak as racist until I found out that I could. And I am very grateful for dear friends who called it out! I have been blindsided many times. Just like many of us who don’t think about “racism” because we think we can choose not to think about it.
The neighborhood around Little Rock Central High School is another powerful visual reminder that the struggle for our common human dignity is continuing. The neighborhood is an obvious “hood”. For me as a visitor, it looks like a Hollywood movie about gang-ruled, run-down, trashy, poor neighborhood, but unfortunately this is not a movie set. I drove around thinking how I would not want to live here, how I do not even want to park my friend’s car anywhere and how out of the place the beautiful historic high school building looks. It is very easy to imagine that, back in 1957, this was a mostly white (or maybe all white) neighborhood. Now the residents are mostly black. Obviously at some point the demographics were completely switched. Even as the high school was becoming integrated.
I saw many white high school students coming out of the buildings, but they did not walk very far. Getting into their cars, parked right in front of the school and school buses and driving away. To some, surely, nicer, newer and much safer neighborhoods. The contrast between the two realities – the school and the neighborhood – could not be any starker.
This short pilgrimage to Little Rock Central High School grounds reminded me that of us, not just Americans, are on a continuous journey. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There are many more beautiful, but difficult stairways to climb.