posted by Sarabeth Jones
Every Wednesday, our staff gets together for a few minutes to connect with each other and pray. It’s a funny, often awkward, occasionally beautiful thing; sometimes we sing, sometimes we speak about what’s hard or good, one time we even did yoga. Yesterday, we had a field trip. We took the morning, instead of the few minutes, and went to a national historic site. It’s 15 minutes away from the church and commemorates a time in our very recent past which tore our community apart as the whole world watched. The President of the United States had to intervene with military force – using American troops on our own soil for the first time since the Civil War. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in many ways that this crisis has defined us to the rest of the country and to ourselves; that it affects us strongly even today. I am speaking, of course, about Central High School.
I am both somewhat embarrassed and even more, simply shocked that I have not been to the museum before (and actually, I don’t think any of us had). I mean, how many times have I been told that the Old Mill is in Gone With The Wind? And yet, when I was trying to explain our field trip to the boys this morning on the way to school, I found myself stumbling through what is possibly the biggest piece of history to ever happen in this area. Well, you see, I began, in the fifties, or maybe the sixties – the mayor of Little Rock, or maybe it was the governor? Faubus? opposed segregation and they had to bring in the National Guard… Yikes. And yet, it was just the beginning of one of the things I would take away from today: that when something shameful happens where we live, we don’t really like to look at it.
We got to hear about a 20 minute retelling of the crisis from a park ranger which was full of more things I didn’t know. That hundreds of African-American students expressed interest in going to Central, but that the list was reduced for every possible reason until it was down to just nine students. That those nine students agreed to give up all extracurricular activities – no athletics, choir, band, school dances – just for the chance to attend Central High School. That it took three tries over the course of three weeks to get those nine students into the school, and then they were harassed daily for the remainder of the year. That all high schools in Little Rock were closed for an entire year following the crisis in just one more attempt to thwart integration.
We walked around the museum, listened to recordings, looked at pictures and video. We looked past the exhibits through the window at the 2 block spread of the beautiful, massive school, the same stretch of sidewalk that Elizabeth Eckford made her way down, all alone. In the middle of all that, I realized how close we really are to it all. I hear people say all the time – let me clarify, I hear white people say all the time – “That’s all in the past, we need to put it behind us and move on.” They are not necessarily referring to the Central High crisis, but racial tensions, racism in general.
And on the surface, that comment sounds reasonable.
But yesterday, I stood in front of the stories of men and women who were in high school in 1957, which is a few years before my own parents were in high school. So basically, for me, it’s one generation away. One generation from the actual men and women who stood on opposite sides of a battle and screamed their hate at each other. A few of whom found themselves in school together, either tormenting or enduring abuse or standing by and doing nothing. The entire community watched it unfold and reacted and their horrible choices were broadcast for the whole world to see. Whatever side you were on, whatever stand you took – you would carry the scars for the rest of your life; whether they were inflicted by others or on yourself by the terrible acts you perpetrated. Or, perhaps you would simply be wounded with the knowledge that you chose not to act at all.
Just think: what if, at your worst moment, you were photographed? What if your meanest, lowest self was on display in front of a mob. Or turn it around to the other side: think of the time someone has insulted you, degraded you, shamed you. What if it had been recorded?
That happened here. To a high school, a city, a community. The people that it happened to are our parents, uncles, friends, grandparents. Very likely, they are the people who helped to shape who we are.
How can we leave it behind when it is all around us? And when, for the most part, people don’t even really know? I’ve lived here my whole life; I was never taught about these events with any depth. I certainly was never encouraged to make a real connection between those events and their probable effect on my (and my peers) personal views on race. Leaving it behind seems like trying to rebuild in a place where land mines have been buried – and the builders saying “well, it was a long time ago,” and hoping for the best. Should we be surprised at the explosion?
This thing we are trying to do at Fellowship North is hard, any way you look at it. But it is the right thing to do. However, it will not happen from surface smiling or platitudes. It will happen through understanding and effort and prayer and sweat and love and tears and our Father’s grace.