The audience was star struck, but the honored guests spoke with reverence about being in a place built to remember Abraham Lincoln. The Little Rock Nine, known for enrolling in a previously all-white school in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957, were in Springfield May 19 after receiving the Lincoln Leadership Prize from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. As a sponsor of a luncheon and reception in their honor, INB was asked to invite local high school students to ask questions of the group. As one student noted before asking her question: “Thank you for this opportunity to meet you.” Little Rock Nine member Ernest Green looked around and replied that being in a facility built to honor a man who changed the course of history, and then being asked to talk about the role the group played in changing the course of history of this country, it was indeed an honor for them.
When asked how he felt walking into Little Rock Central High that first day, Green said, “It didn’t make sense then. I don’t think it makes sense now. I guess as I walked in, I thought I could make changes in the broader picture.”
Dr. Terrence Roberts pointed out during the course of the Q & A that he and each of the other eight Little Rock members have very different stories, and in his case, it took some months for him to realize “this was bigger than just us.” His realization came the day he received a piece of mail addressed to “Terry Roberts, USA.”
But day in and day out, the challenges of going to Little Rock Central High School were nothing short of harrowing. When asked, “Were there any white students who stood up for you?” Elizabeth Eckford replied, “At first, there were maybe 12. They seemed to be okay at first.” But, then, the adults organized activities that today would be nothing short of hate crimes, and, eventually, even these few supporters became detractors. Eckford says boys and girls were scalded in the showers. “We were slammed into lockers. Terry learned to walk as close to the lockers as possible. Gloria (Ray Karlmark) never used the toilet at school out of fear.”
Carlotta Walls Lanier explains this was very difficult because, at the time, she was there for an education, “not to educate the rest of the world . . . My dad said we were citizens who paid taxes like everyone else. We had a right to an education.”
When one student asked, “Has anyone ever apologized for the way they treated you?” Roberts answered, “Some of the students have apologized. But just a few. A very few.” When asked if he could do one thing differently, Roberts said, “I would demand to know why I was treated that way.”
Yet with all that hatred, why did they stay? Eckford says, “It’s not easy to quit when you know a lot of people are counting on you.”
Lanier replied this way: “I had a right to be there. I could have quit after the first year, but I needed to validate all that I had been through.”
Karlmark added, “If I didn’t go to that school, what would I do? It became my resolve.”
“Did you go on your own?” asked one student participant. “I alone left my house,” said Karlmark. No one forced her to go. Lanier added. “I think there were 114 selected. Thirty-nine were given the list of things we could and could not do once we got to the school.” They couldn’t do band. They couldn’t sing in the choir. They couldn’t play sports. They couldn’t be part of the yearbook or newspaper. “Thirty-nine did not show up at Central High after getting that list,” concluded Lanier.