Merlene Davis: Remembering the Little Rock Nine and the lessons we must learn

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 24, 2013 

On Sept. 24, 1957, I was making the life of my first-grade teacher in Owensboro a wee bit miserable.

I already knew how to write, how to read and how to work math problems, having been taught all that by my older sister and brother, who had attended the same segregated school. So I tended to talk too much and mess with fellow students who hadn't quite grasped the intricacies of 1 plus 1.

I stood in the corner quite often.

Meanwhile, about 450 miles east of Owensboro, nine Central High School students in Little Rock, Ark., were being spat on, cursed, called names, pushed down stairs and jabbed with sharpened pencils because their skin was black.

It was the second day that they had been able to enter the school, thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sent in troops from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect them.

For several days, the nine had been turned away by fierce, angry mobs of segregationists and by members of the Arkansas National Guard.

Ultimately, three of the nine students earned their diploma from Central, and a fourth earned hers through correspondence classes. The remaining five students completed their high school educations at other schools.

I had no clue.

Four years later, when I entered fifth grade, integrating Mary Lee Cravens Elementary School in Owensboro with two other black students, the backlash we received was nothing like what those nine students endured.

I continued to learn from brother and sister, mess with my fellow students and accept my punishment at the new school.

When I was discussing with my boss the Little Rock Nine, as the students came to be known, we both remembered the iconic photo of Elizabeth Eckford, 15, walking alone through an angry mob. We both also remembered a reconciliation between Eckford and the one white woman behind her whose face was the most contorted.

That woman turned out to be Hazel Bryan, also 15, although she looked years older. Five or six years later, Hazel Bryan Massery (she had married) called Eckford and apologized for her actions, but the two women didn't meet until 1997, on the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Central.

Massery had spent her life trying to atone for the actions of the woman in the photo. She counseled unwed black mothers, took underprivileged black kids on field trips and read up on black history.

During the same time, Eckford was fighting depression and what was later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder from her time at Central.

Despite all that, the two women had managed to bury those deep emotions and become friends. At least, that is what the pictures of the two women in later years seemed to indicate and what my boss and I remembered.

But it wasn't true. For four years, the women traveled together, spoke at various events and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1999.

But the relationship fell apart. Their joint travels and speaking engagements ended in 2001.

Where was that fairy-tale ending my boss and I had desired and believed in?

We all want to look beyond past and current inequalities and see peaceful multicultural interaction.

We want that.

We just don't want to work very long or hard to get it. We'd rather assume that reconciliation has occurred and then move on, despite evidence to the contrary.

Without a concerted effort to keep the train on a straight track, the locomotive goes in circles.

We get a U.S. Supreme Court that says our deep-seated racial differences have evolved. We get voter ID laws that smell of poll taxes. We get a judicial system that resembles Jim Crow laws.

We get black students on the lower rung of the education ladder and white kids at the top.

And we get young black males killed because they look dangerous, and jurors who give their killers a pass.

All of that sounds like a rerun.

I never saw the stories about Massery ending her relationship with Eckford. I guess I didn't want to see them. But I also don't want to see this country sliding back into racial oppression that has cause such lingering pain.

To avoid that, I need to take all the lessons I've been taught, mess with a few people who haven't learned, and realize I'll be standing in the corner once again.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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