The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Little Rock:
50 years before Jena

Sep 24, 2007

On September 4, 1957, a line of Arkansas National Guardsmen with bayonets drawn prevented one young black woman from entering Central High School in Little Rock, three years after the Supreme Court ruled that “separate” education is “unequal.” Racist mobs threatened the nine brave black teenagers who determinedly went to school day after day. The ugly situation led President Eisenhower to send in troops of the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the law.

These young people kept courageously facing angry racists who threatened to kill them.

Here is one of those teenagers remembering. Said Melba Pattillo Beals, “The first day I was able to enter Central High School, what I felt inside was terrible, wrenching, awful fear. On the car radio I could hear that there was a mob. I knew what a mob meant and I knew that the sounds that came from the crowd were very angry. So we entered the side of the building, very, very fast. Even as we entered there were people running after us, people tripping other people.... I’d only been in the school a couple of hours and by that time it was apparent that the mob was just overrunning the school. Policemen were throwing down their badges and the mob was getting past the wooden sawhorses because the police would no longer fight their own in order to protect us....”

And here is the story of Minniejean Brown, as told by Ernest Green: “For a couple of weeks there had been a number of white kids following us, continuously calling us niggers. “Nigger, nigger, nigger,” one right after the other. Minniejean Brown was in the lunch line with me. I was in front of Minnie and there was this white kid, a fellow who was much shorter than Minnie.... He reminded me of a small dog, yelping at somebody’s leg. Minnie had just picked up her chili out of this line.... And before I could even say, “Minnie why don’t you tell him to shut up,” Minnie had taken this chili, dumped it on this dude’s head. There was just absolute silence in the place. And then the cafeteria help, all black, broke into applause. And the other white kids there didn’t know what to do. I mean it was the first time that anybody, I’m sure, had seen somebody black retaliate in that sense. It was a good feeling to see that happen, to be able to let them know we were capable of taking care of ourselves. With that the school board suspended Minnie....”

If some things have changed since then, there are still violent racists, official and otherwise. And there are still black people determined to stand up for themselves.