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February 3, 2010 > Reflections of 1957 - a beginning

Reflections of 1957 - a beginning

A personal essay

By Suzanne Ortt

A memorable moment occurred in my life 53 years ago. Now, approaching my 69th year, I realize its continuing impact.

The distressing moment was my shock upon learning racism was the norm in my environment. My eyes began to open in October 1957. I was sixteen years old, living in this narrow world, when Central High in Little Rock, the capitol of Arkansas, integrated. Nine African-American students took a historic step, becoming world-famous. Arkansas was in turmoil.

Let's rewind to this conversation.
Standing in our kitchen on a cool October day, I asked my mother, "Why is a white woman head of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)?"
"Why, Suzanne, Daisy Bates is a Negro."
"But they call her Mrs.," I replied.
My response revealed my ignorance. This shameful moment, which I have never forgotten, started my transformation. I am so thankful that I began to change.

Responding to our attorney general's comments on racism, Hilary Shelton, vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, added her thoughts. She, too, believes racism is not a taboo subject. She said, "People need to feel comfortable saying the wrong things."

So, here is my take on racial discrimination.
Now I think back to 1957 and compare the lives of my high school social set and those of the "Little Rock Nine."

In September 1957, nine young pioneering students, Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, Melba Beals, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, and Ernest Green, took an extraordinary action; each one bravely entered Central High School (enrollment approximately 2,000) in Little Rock, Arkansas. Amid opposing views and disparate actions by adults, integration, in dramatic fashion, had begun.

In September 1957, I entered Batesville High School (enrollment about 280) in Batesville, Arkansas, a town of 7,000 in north central Arkansas where people still sang Dixie, the popular southern song that was the anthem of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Governor Orval Faubus ended any chance of a smooth transition. He called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from joining the student body at CHS. President Dwight D. Eisenhower countered, by calling out the 101st Airborne and nationalizing the Arkansas National Guard. Integration had begun.

The world for the nine students was this reality: daily encounters with hostile throngs of angry whites, hurtful actions, racist jeers, curses, clawing hands, and defiant stares. Apparently typical adolescence for them was over. Prior to this conflict, these teens probably had interests similar to mine. Their lives had changed forever.

The world for my girl friends and me was small town life. Our realities were dragging Main street (similar to cruising today), hanging out at the Sweden Cr¸me, curling our eyelashes, wondering if our tennies were dirty enough, studying enough to earn B+ grades or better, thinking about boys, and cheering for the Pioneers (our sports teams).

On Friday nights at our football games, we would cheer: "Two, four, six, eight - Who do we appreciate? Pioneers!" The nine teens in Little Rock heard this version: "Two, four, six, eight - we ain't going to integrate."

Stereotyping and discrimination are destructive behaviors. Reflecting back, since 1957, I recognize the value of tolerance and have tried to practice it. I have come to believe that stereotyping limits one life. How many friendships would I have missed if I could not get beyond stereotyping? I think about the continuation of discrimination and how I basically overcame it. I am not one to 'rock the boat' so I see my contributions have been quiet ones. Once my daughter, after gaining adulthood said, "I am so thankful Dad and you raised me not to be prejudiced." What a compliment.

Positive changes are in evidence. Today's sports world is one notable proof of progress. It is hard to believe that professional baseball's major leagues were all white until Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson, an exceptional athlete, ended racial segregation in professional baseball. The amazing integration since is apparent in sports venues, amateur and professional, from sea to shining sea.

America the Beautiful is one of my favorite songs. Electing Barack Obama as president was one major step forward and made America more beautiful to millions of others and to me. I wonder what the next milestone will be

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