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Friday, September 29, 2017

September 29, 2017: Early Civil Rights Histories: The Little Rock Nine

[September 25th marks the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine integrating the city’s all-white Central High School. So this week, after a special post on Little Rock and race, I’ll focus on a few other early Civil Rights moments, histories, and figures.]
On three ways to remember the couragerous, groundbreaking high schoolers.
1)      Their Words: Not at all coincidentally, many of the Little Rock Nine went on to pursue careers in education and journalism, and a few have written extensively about their experiences in and after Central High in the late 1950s. Journalist Melba Pattillo Beals has written two memoirs, Warriors Don’t Cry (1994), which focuses most directly on in the integration efforts, and a sequel about her later life, White is a State of Mind (1999). Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the nine at 14 when the integration efforts began, worked with author Lisa Frazier Page on her own memoir, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School (2009). And teacher and consultant Terrence Roberts wrote and published two books of his own, Lessons from Little Rock (2009) and Simple, Not Easy: Reflections on Community, Social Responsibility, and Tolerance (2010). Taken together, these works introduce us to the individual identities and perspectives of these young activists, as well as to the shared experiences and issues that unite them and demand our engagement.
2)      Documentaries: By far the most famous film about the students is Nine from Little Rock (1964), filmmaker Charles Guggenheim’s Academy Award winning documentary short that was narrated by one of the students, Jefferson Thomas (to date the only one who has passed away, so it’s particularly important to have this record of his voice and perspective). But complementing that documentary’s social and historical overview nicely is Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown Trickey (2002), which focuses closely on the life and identity of one of the nine students. After Little Rock Brown Trickey went on to a career in social work, taking part in First Nations activism in Ottawa (where she received her Master’s from Carleton University) and serving as President Clinton’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for diversity. Taken together, these two films help us understand both the specifics of 1957 Little Rock and the long lives and arcs of each of these nine Americans, a combination that’s vital if we’re to remember the Little Rock Nine.
3)      Contemporary Echoes: As I hope this blog demonstrates day in and day out, however, historical and collective memories are also about echoes and connections in the present. One contemporary way to remember the Little Rock Nine would be to compare them to #BlackLivesMatter, a social movement for African American rights and equality likewise begun by young people but centered not in education or a local community but on social media and the internet. But offering an even more overt parallel and echo of the Little Rock Nine, to my mind, are the students at Arizona’s Cholla High School who in 2012 began a series of protests and activisms in support of their Mexican American Studies program (which has been and remains under assault from state laws and lawmakers). If and when we hear critiques of “millenials” or other 21st century young people as self-centered or disinterested, the implicit or explicit contrast is generally with more communally engaged prior generations. Yet despite generational shifts and differences, there’s a strong through-line between the Little Rock Nine and these 21st century youthful activists, and remembering the former can likewise help us appreciate and celebrate the latter.
September Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights histories or figures you’d highlight?

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