What's the value of Black History Month for those who are not black? It’s looking at events from a different lens. There are so many teachable moments in black history. In educational lingo, when we ask students to look at events through different lenses, we want students to look at history through multiple perspectives. Last fall, I took a weekly walk through a historic moment in African American history. I volunteered to guide students through Choosing to Participate (sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves), an exhibit that was designed to encourage students to become UPSTANDERs, to ACT and PARTICIPATE, the opposite of being a bystander.
One of the four sites in the Choosing to Participate exhibit, called Crisis in Little Rock, told, through pictures, film clips, and a model of a teenager’s room, the story of the nine students (“Little Rock Nine”) who were barred from entering Central High School in 1957 because they were black. The room belonged to Elizabeth Eckford, then 15. In her room, students speculated about her thoughts, as she got ready for her first day of school and drew comparisons to their thoughts on the first day of school. As we watched the film clips while sitting in her room, we learned that Eckford walked the short distance to school alone. No one had warned her that Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas, was seeking to bar the Little Rock Nine from school. We watched Eckford arrive at Central High School and saw her being pushed and shoved away from the entrance by local townspeople. We witnessed members of the Arkansas National Guard (called out by Governor Faubus) block Eckford’s access to the school. We heard an angry mob scream "2,4,6,8, we don't want to integrate."
We learned that the Little Rock Nine were unable to enter Central High School for seventeen days. During those seventeen days, most of the white folk in Little Rock just closed their doors; they didn't want a part of the situation. Bystanders.
After watching the film clips, many students told us that they felt as though they had “walked in her shoes;” they felt her fear, alienation, and isolation. They empathized. It was harder for students to understand what drove the angry mob, why townspeople were silent bystanders, or why certain political decisions were made. Maybe that’s a sign of our progress in race relations. Maybe we’ve moved forward in dealing with prejudice and hatred. It was a powerful experience. This is the kind of content that makes students talk and relate and draw connections to other experiences. Though the exhibit is closed, teachers can still access information at, Choosing to Participate, http://www.choosingtoparticipate.org/explore/exhibit/stories/little-rock/words.
Eventually, Eckford and the other members of the Little Rock Nine gained access to Central High School. President Eisenhower sent the 101 Airborne to Little Rock to straighten things out. What many people don't know, however, is that in dealing with the Little Rock Crisis, Eisenhower shed his personal perspective for a legal one. As a personal matter, Eisenhower didn't support integration. He had grown up in segregated times. He also didn't believe that the seminal case of Brown v. Board of Education, calling for integration in the schools, would change much in school systems. But he did believe in the law and that's why he sent the Airborne to Little Rock:
Our personal opinions on the Brown decision have no bearing in the matter of enforcement. Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts. Choosing to Participate, A Facing History and Ourselves Publication, p, 41.
Eisenhower overcame his personal beliefs to support the spirit of the law.
Eisenhower, just as Eckford and the rest of the Little Rock Nine, are the heroes of this story. Looking at this historic moment through multiple perspectives adds deeper meaning and fosters greater understanding of the times and historic challenges. This is a story worth repeating and Black History Month is a perfect time to tell it.