Beyond racism: A 'Little Rock Nine' member and civil rights
Getting beyond racism, a 'Little Rock Nine' member looks back on the evolution of US civil rights
San Rafael, Calif.
I have been blessed to view America's racial divide from a unique perspective. I grew up in Little Rock, Ark., during the 1950s – an oppressed child whose entire world was filled with visibly frightened black people fenced into the grind of powerlessness.Skip to next paragraph
At 12, I hardly knew what to wish for, or dream about. I was drowning in the fear of the adults around me, caged by unwritten rules based on what they thought the white folks wanted and rumors of when the Ku Klux Klan would be riding to our house at night. I was oppressed because I couldn't walk down the street when I wanted, or shop in department stores, or eat at the lunch counter of the five-and-dime. Above all, I couldn't get a seat in the chariot to view the front of life – never mind the front of the bus.
As I read about white celebrities in movie magazines; famous black stars in Ebony; and slick, polished girls in Seventeen, I was ready for something that amounted to much more than I'd ever imagined for myself.
At 16 I got my opportunity: Partly by luck, but also because I went to church every Sunday, made excellent grades, and had a pristine behavior record, I was chosen to be a significant player in the civil rights movement.
I am one of the Little Rock Nine, one of the teenagers who integrated all-white Central High School in 1957. We sparked such a national firestorm that President Eisenhower summoned the Army to guard us as we entered the school amid a mob threatening to lynch us. We were nine black kids joining 1,900 white students – and they weren't mounting any welcome wagon for us.
As a high school sophomore I suddenly had a bounty on my head: The local white citizens' council offered $10,000 for me dead; $5,000 alive. As a result, I was rushed to the airport by my family and ushered onto a plane bound for California. There I found the haven where I began to develop my own conclusions about race in America.
To my surprise, the family who volunteered to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to give me shelter was white: Dr. and Mrs. George McCabe and their four children. They cared for me as if I were one of their own. Above all, they opened my thought and heart to possibilities. I watched as my adopted father, a college professor earning a modest living, demonstrated what is possible to those who are free to pursue their dreams – he founded a university from scratch.