Little Rock Nine: Conversation Continues

Three of the Little Rock Nine continue their conversation with Farai Chideya, with a look at how their actions shaped the future of desegregation in America.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We continue our discussion with members of the Little Rock Nine. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nine black students marched to a hostile white crowded integrated school.

I spoke with three of the nine - Melba Beals, chair of the communications department at Dominican University of California; Elizabeth Eckford, a probation officer in Little Rock; and Terrence Roberts, a professor of psychology at Antioch University in Los Angeles.

I asked Professor Roberts what it was like to look back at the group's struggle half a century later.

Dr. TERRENCE ROBERTS (Member, Little Rock Nine; Psychology, Antioch University): Our struggle in '57 was certainly worth it. No question about it.

Professor MELBA BEALS (Member, Little Rock Nine; Chairwoman, Communications Department, Dominican University of California): No question about it.

Dr. ROBERTS: We were responding to the needs of the time. And I think young people today have the same responsibility to respond to the needs of the time whether they will do that or not, or how they will do that is up to them

Prof. BEALS: Little Rock was different and significant and worth it because it's set a new tone. As I said before, it changed the playing field. It was a notice to all the states across the south. Integrate, follow the law, or there are options we can take. And until that time, there've been no option.

And so what we did was speed it up. The contribution was that we set a different tone. We said, okay, move ahead now. It's time to go this way. We are not going to stand outside your school pleading with you until you say welcome one day because it's not going to happen. We're going to possess. We're going to take, we're going to claim our own equality.

CHIDEYA: What about the whole question of where the civil rights movement or some people call it a human rights movement goes from here? We've talked a little bit about recent Supreme Court decisions about desegregation, talked a little bit about the changing nature of the population of the school system. But if you are a parent, a teacher, a community leader, who looks at the schools and says, we haven't come far enough, how do you push forward an agenda of equality?

Ms. ELIZABETH ECKFORD (Member, Little Rock Nine; Probation Officer, Little Rock): Well, across the country, there is a challenge of how do you provide an equitable education for all students regardless of socioeconomic status of the community they live in. And teachers are challenged to intentionally teach all students. But, you know, no - that's one thing the No Child Left Behind does is it challenges. It makes accountable school systems for the end results of all students.

So (unintelligible)…

Dr. ROBERTS: So you really hope that's the goal. I'm not quite sure it is.

Prof. BEALS: No, I would agree with Terry. I think that across the country, every power, it has to look at what their child was getting. And part of what the Supreme Court is saying by taking some of the stiffness in the snow out of Brown is that, okay, we may not need to go that way. But we, as people of consciousness and color, must look and say, that is the way we're going. We're going to educate.

It was sort of interesting. When I started to turn around and say, okay, I'm going to be a professor. I'm going to teach was actually Terry, who helped to mentor me to move ahead and do that.

CHIDEYA: Before we let you go, if you have to put a message in to a time capsule, and I'm sure that you've had this chance in some ways with your own writings and with the speaking that you do. If you have to put something into a time capsule for a class at Central High, say, 100 years from now, telling them how to treat each other fairly with justice, with compassion, what kind of message would you leave? Ms. Eckford, let me start with you.

Ms. ECKFORD: Well, I would tell them that they, themselves, can be very, very powerful. So they generally don't know that, but they can be very, very powerful. And I point to an example for me when I would go all day long being set apart, being alone, and the people who were hitting me were turning their backs. But in the last class of the day, this shy person felt comfortable in a speech class because of what was happening there for me. There were people who reached out to me daily. And that was the only time that that happened.

CHIDEYA: Professor Roberts?

Prof. ROBERTS: Well, I would share some wisdom that came my way when I was in first grade. My first grade teacher told all of us in that class - said we had to take executive responsibility for our own learning. And that learning was important because with learning, you multiply the available options in your life. Without learning, you're forced to use the same options over and over. So lifelong learning would be my message.

CHIDEYA: And Professor Beals?

Prof. BEALS: Namaste is how I end my book. The god in me sees the god in you. The only way we will ever make it is if we all understand that if one of us is enslaved, if one of - with one Iraqi is enslaved and not recognized and not being seen for himself, we are all enslaved.

And so the only answer is to love and respect yourself and to love and respect your colleagues because seeing equal is being equal. And only when you understand the value of everybody around you do we get the equality that we're going for. And certainly, one way perpetuated (unintelligible) with what Dr. Roberts said. You've got to be committed to enhancing your own self, empowering yourself to claim your equality. It isn't given to you, it's acclaimed.

CHIDEYA: Professor Beals, Miss Eckford, Professor Roberts, thank you so much.

Dr. ROBERTS: Thank you.

Prof. BEALS: Thank you very much.

Ms. ECKFORD: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was Melba Beals, chair of the communications department at Dominican University of California. Also, Elizabeth Eckford, a probation officer in Little Rock; And Terrence Roberts, a professor of psychology at Antioch University in Los Angeles. They were all part of the Little Rock Nine. That group of black students integrated Little Rock Central High School half a century ago this week.

To see historic pictures of the Little Rock Nine and to discuss their legacy, go to our blog, nprnewsandviews.org.

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