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History in the making

July 28, 2009

I spent the day touring Little Rock, AR, home of Bill Clinton and the Little Rock Nine, the group of students to break the color lines and enter all-white Central High School following the ruling from Brown vs. Board of Education. 

Standing in front of the towering school building was a powerful experience.  The building itself is an imposing structure; I can scarcely fathom the intensity of approaching it as a small group of black students in a sea of angry white protestors, with national guardsmen armed and ready on the sides of the streets should violence break out.  Thinking of how hurt, scared, yet determined those nine teenagers were to confront history in such a way very nearly brought tears to my eyes. 

I felt a mixture of admiration and anger as I read quotes from each of the students in the visitor’s center – admiration for the students’ courage, and anger at people, both past and present, who feel segregation or exclusion based on race or religion is justified.  One of the quotes jumped out at me as especially wise:

“After three full days inside Central, I know that integration is a much bigger word than I thought” (Melba Pattillo).

Looking around inner-city America, or on Indian reservations out West, I know how telling that statement was.  Laws can change, but the social and economic impacts of discrimination don’t quickly follow suit; the impacts are still blatantly visible. 

On a more positive note, I got to experience good old-fashioned southern hospitality on a stop at the downtown farmers’ market after my visit to Central High.  One of the vendor’s from whom I purchased apples noticed my hat and asked me if I was a real cowgirl or just acting the part; I said I spend my spare time working horses and driving cattle in Montana and he took my hand to shake it and express his genuine pleasure at meeting a “real” cowgirl.  His partner noticed my boots and said, “Yep, she’s the real thing – you can tell because she’s wearing workboots, not some sparkling, spangled pair.”  They insisted I take a box of cubed canteloupe for the road, free of charge. 

I imagine a black farmer and white cowgirl wouldn’t have had such an interaction fifty years ago, but thanks to admirable individuals like the Little Rock Nine, we could exchange handshakes and smiles without anyone thinking two ways about it.

But we still have a ways to go…

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