Saturday, May 17, 2014 marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark civil rights education case, Brown v. Board of Education. What could be a more fitting way to celebrate this occasion than by hearing from one of the individuals who played a key role in this historic shift?
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional. It overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 which allowed state sponsored segregation, insofar that it applied to public education. Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for integration and was a major victory of the civil rights movement. The first school to be integrated was Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine black students — the Little Rock Nine — entered the halls to attend a previously all-white school.
Exactly sixty years since the unanimous 9-0 decision, where should I find myself but in Sacramento, California, attending a two day meeting for the policy making body of the California School Boards Association. To commemorate this historic civil rights anniversary, the association had arranged to hear from Dr. Melba Beals, one of the #LittleRockNine, to share her insights and perspective gained from this experience and how it has shaped her life and work.
Now, I wasn’t even alive when this civil rights action took place. I only learned about it in history classes growing up. That is why I was very interested to hear from Dr. Beals her first person account of how it all came in to play.
Here are the some of the insights she shared from her civil rights experience:
The process for the Little Rock Nine was a legal decision. It was a staged, step-by-step civil rights operation that took three years to implement.
Why Central High? Central High was chosen because of its size (8 stories tall and 2 blocks long) and its academic accomplishments (it was rated 10th in the nation)
Why nine black students? In the beginning, 116 students were recruited. In order to participate, students needed parent permission and a thick skin. Those qualifications eliminated most of the prospective students. Dr. Beals actually signed her mother’s name to the permission slip and her 15 year old naivety to the world around her, kept her as a prospective candidate.
What was the first day like? There were thousands of people yelling, spitting, cursing, and threatening the students. The students had to be escorted through a side door to enter the school. They were first taken to the the principal’s office. Dr. Beals described the principal as nasty. Instead of keeping the nine together, he separated them as far apart from each other as he could so that they were left to themselves to deal with the ridicule. The persecution was so strong that the students only lasted until noon on that first day, and had to escape for their lives.
How did they make it through the school year? On the second day of school, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students. Three levels of service men were assigned to each student. They followed their charges everywhere they went — except the bathroom. According to Dr. Beals, “There was no time to cry. We had to just keep moving. We always sat in the back of a room so that we knew where the exits were and so that we could keep an eye out for what everyone else was doing.” To this day, she maintains these habits and is still afraid of being put in to strange environments.
Why did they go where they weren’t welcome? Dr. Beals put it simply: “If you don’t go where you aren’t welcome, you will end up where you are assigned.” As far as prejudice goes, she remarked,”You just have to look the other way because it is there every day.”
The problem with students today? They have lost the meaning of why they are in school. They think they are there for material reasons. They don’t understand the sacrifices that have to be made and how education is the great equalizer.
How does that experience influence her today? Her personal motto has become: Game ON. Dr. Beals realizes she will forever represent that historical event. While she was just a 15 year old girl when she became a part of this unique circumstance, she truly believes that she has an obligation to push forward, sharing what happened, and look for ways to stay involved in worthwhile causes. I think that is a terrific philosophy that anyone can apply to whatever life experiences they have.
I won’t ever forget the day I met and learned from a civil rights icon.