By Myra Chanin
On May 17, 1954, Thurgood Marshall, Esq. convinced the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal — just unconstitutional. The Court ordered schools to integrate with “all deliberate speed.” The following year, in 1955 the Little Rock school board adopted an integration plan with a starting date of 1957, not fast enough for the state’s NAACP who contested that decision. Their suit was dismissed when a judge decided the school board was acting in good faith.
Arkansas was considered a racially progressive southern state because it already had a few integrated facilities like a law school and a public library and by the spring of 1957, Little Rock’s buses and all but one of the state’s universities were desegregated. So far. So good. At that time also, 517 black students who all lived in the Central High School district, were asked who would be interested in transferring to the formerly all-white Central High School in the fall.
Interviews eventually narrowed the number down to six girls and three boys who became known as the Little Rock Nine. Carlotta Walls, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas and Ernest Green – all age 14, Elizabeth Eckford, Melba Pattillo, Minnijean Brown and Terrence Roberts, all age 15. Thelma Mothershed, age 16, was the oldest.
Only 14 years old, Ernest Green was the lone senior. He’d started school in second grade because he’d been tutored by his mother who was a first-grade teacher. Why was he willing to forego attending his Senior Prom and graduating with his friends? Central High’s science and math resources were superior, important for anyone who planned to study mechanical engineering as Ernest did. He was prepared to work hard and graduate to demonstrate that African-Americans were as capable of succeeding as anyone white.
In August, the newly formed Mother’s League of Central High School won a temporary injunction from a local chancellor blocking integration lest it “lead to violence.” The injunction was nullified by Federal District Judge Ronald Davies. On September 2nd, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, a staunch segregationist, ordered the State National Guard to surround the school and prevent the negro children from entering, but Judge Davies saved the day by ordering integrated classes to begin on September 4th.
Finally, on September 23, police escorted the African-American students through an angry, spitting mob of 1,000 white protesters into the school’s basement and then swiftly removed them from the school. The following day, President Eisenhower placed 1,200 members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in charge of the 10,000 National Guardsmen Governor Faubus called up. The Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of classes on September 25, escorted by armed guards. Troops remained at the school for the entire year, but the black students were still subjected to verbal and physical assault from a faction of white students. The male students were subjected to beatings. Melba Patillo had acid thrown in her eyes. Elizabeth Eckford was pushed down a flight of stairs. Minijean Brown was ultimately suspended for continuing to fight back. The remaining eight consistently turned the other check during a year which nine teens called high school but has been re-defined as history.
The play begins with a touching tenor sax interlude, “Eyes on the Prize.” Elizabeth Eckford (Anita Welsh) softly prays for protection while hate-filled white faces are projected on a background screen. The five African-American girls wear crinoline skirts, the fashion of the times. As you can imagine every single one of the Little Rock Nine was smart, competent and ambitious, but their giggly, silly teen-age aspects are also evident. Minnijean is in love with Pat Boone. But Melba loves Shakespeare and Carlotta wants to be a doctor. The ties that bound and helped them overcome were community, faith and music. In 1957-1958 even the offspring of rabid segregationists were dancing to the songs of Chuck Berry, the Coasters, Little Richie and Jackie Wilson. That link helped.
On May 25, 1958, Ernest Green became the first African-American Student to graduate from Central High School, after a congratulatory call from Jackie Robinson and with Dr. Martin Luther King attending the event with the Green family. It’s not a happy ending. Central High was granted a stay of desegregation with a judge declaring that black students have a right to attend white schools but that time had not yet come.
Little Rock is a very well researched documentary, both harrowing and hopeful, based on words gleaned from testimonials and interviews which writer/director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, hailed by the New York Times as one of the most talented directors in the city, conducted over a 13-year period with members of the Little Rock Nine and other Arkansans concerning the events of that first tumultuous year and its legacy.
Nine very nimble performers: Rebekah Brockman, Justin Cunningham, Charlie Hudson III, Peter O’Connor, Ashley Robinson, Damian Jermaine Thompson, Kea Trevett, Stephanie Umoh, Anita Welch and Shanice Williams swoop between 42 roles that run the gamut from the nine teens to Mike Wallace, Major General Edwin Walker, Governor Orville Faubus, a DJ at KDXE 1380, a plethora of segregationists of both sexes, Louis Armstrong, Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Daisy Lee Baes, NAACP Little Rock chapter president.
Little Rock bears witness to the strength, courage and fortitude of these teenagers who changed the course of America forever simply because they wanted to get a better education — a story that hurtles from tragedy to triumph in the course of two hours, and leaves, I dare say, very few dry eyes in the auditorium. It honors the bravery of these young heroes and asks audiences, would you have had the courage to endure what they did. My guest was an 18-year-old college sophomore who was as moved as I was. I asked if she would have had the courage to do what these young people did, she said she didn’t think so, nor did she know anyone she thought could have endured it. Too bad this evil is being encouraged to well up again.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Performed at the Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker St. New York City until September 8th, 2018