By Todd A. Smith
The history books that we read as schoolchildren would have had us to believe that icons like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were the only civil rights heroes of any consequence.
However, there were countless names and faces that gave their life or sense of security so that later generations of Americans could truly live free and equal lives.
The Little Rock Nine, who integrated Central High School in 1957, were true civil rights heroes who put their lives on the line on a daily basis so that children of all colors could benefit from a quality education in whatever school they chose to attend.
On Sept. 5, we lost Jefferson Thomas, 67, one of the iconic students that stood proudly against the bigotry of segregation, to pancreatic cancer. Although the struggles of those nine students never went unnoticed in the history books, I often feel that we overlook all of what they endured just so we can enjoy the freedoms that we constantly take for granted.
“Even at such a young age, (Thomas) had the courage to risk his own safety, to defy a governor and a mob, and to walk proudly into that school even though it would have been far easier to give up and turn back,” said President Barack Obama in a written statement on Sept. 6. “Our nation owes Mr. Thomas a debt of gratitude for the stand he took half a century ago, and the leadership he showed in the decades since.”
When one looks back at their teenage years and their experiences in high school, they often reminisce about football games, their first serious relationship and going through the growing pains of life on their way to adulthood.
We often sit back and think of those socially awkward years which included overzealous parents and laugh at how we thought it was the end of the world if our parents wanted us at home by a midnight curfew. And although some dealt with more serious issues like broken homes, abuse and drug and alcohol addiction while in high school, very few had to deal with the weight of the world being placed upon their shoulders, while the nation was willing to kill you just to keep you from attending a White high school.
What Thomas, Carlotta Walls, Melba Patillo, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts and Thelma Mothershed endured truly made them civil rights heroes whose stories should not vanish over time.
After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Little Rock Central High School was one of the first schools to attempt to enforce integration despite explosive protest from many White residents. While trying to enter the school, former Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus instructed National Guard members to not allow any of the nine Black students’ entry.
With the help of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, the Little Rock Nine finally entered the school, but required escorts from the soldiers for the remainder of the school year. Nevertheless, they still endured physical abuse from classmates and mental abuse from faculty throughout the 1957-58 academic year.
Despite the discrimination that these civil rights heroes endured, their perseverance through the storm is what they are most remembered for. And because of the storms that these civil rights heroes withstood, this country is able to enjoy the bright days that we seem to take for granted regularly.
Like many, when I was a student I would sometimes complain about the battles I had to overcome or the school books that I did not think related to my life at the time. But if we take the time to honor those icons that flood our history books, then maybe we will never forget the civil rights heroes that made all of our accomplishments (past, present and future) possible.
Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men’s Magazine.