“Don’t be selfish, Melba!” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. charged a tearful, 16-year-old Melba Pattillo as she hesitated to attend Little Rock’s Central High School in September 1957. “Stop complaining! You are not doing this for yourself, you are doing it for generations you have not seen, who you have not met,” he strongly admonished.
Melba Pattillo was one of nine students – along with Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrance Roberts, Erie Green, Carlotta Walls, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray and Thelma Mothershed – who courageously integrated Little Rock’s Central High School 60 years ago [this week].
What would become a defining moment in the South’s resistance to civil rights began quietly with a plan by the Little Rock Board of Education to integrate the city’s schools. What happened after transformed the country.
While most students were met by the smiling faces of friends the first day of school, the Little Rock Nine (LR9) were met by the Arkansas National Guard – sent there, Governor Orval Faubus proclaimed in a statewide broadcast, “for their own protection.” The Governor’s actions, and community’s reaction, would focus the eyes of the world on Little Rock and nine brave young students.
America will never forget the heartbreaking image of Elizabeth Eckford walking alone through a gauntlet of threats and racial slurs. “I looked for a friendly face in the crowd, when I thought I found one, an older lady, I looked at her again and she spat on me,” she later recounted.
I heard these stories and lessons firsthand during this past weekend when I had the honor to represent Denver in Little Rock at the 60th Anniversary commemoration. I was invited to attend by Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the LR9, a Denver resident since 1962.
Like all the LR9, she inspires me and so many in our community. One thing she said stuck with me: “In spite of the constant bullying, being pushed down the stairs, sitting in spittle, being spat on, and having my heals walked on until they bled, I still made the honor roll! I couldn’t allow them to think they had won.” These students are a lesson in perseverance and purpose.
I sat spellbound as Ms. LaNier and the other seven remaining LR9 shared their personal reflections about that seminal moment six decades ago, and watched as others were moved to tears and reacted to them as celebrities, much to their own surprise. What to us was a watershed moment for civil rights, was to them, simply trying to go to school. Several of their children and one of their spouses commented how many years would go by before they even knew their loved one was a member of the famed LR9.
The emotional weekend was a reminder of how incredibly important it is that our youth remain connected to our history. Whether it’s our fight for independence, the Holocaust, the Little Rock Nine, slavery or the Sand Creek massacre, our young people need to understand that someone fought hard, often paying the ultimate price for rights that they would never fully enjoy themselves, so that we may enjoy them freely today. These moments should educate, inform and inspire our youth, so that they avoid repeating the mistakes of previous generations.
And today, in the face of efforts to roll back the progress of our nation for racial unity, equality and opportunity, courageous men and women must step up where they see injustices. Now is the time to show courage, the same courage displayed by the LR9. As one speaker said during the 60th Anniversary dinner, “They showed courage by showing up on day one, but they came back on day two and three and so on.” We, too, must display that courage again and again.
Ours is a nation where everyone does matter, and where everyone’s contribution is necessary to carry forth opportunities to the next generation – the generation we have not seen, who we have not met. Thank you, Little Rock Nine, for having the courage to make a difference for all of us!
Editor’s note: Michael B. Hancock is Denver’s 45th and current Mayor.