From Civil Rghts to Solar Energy

Thursday, April 26, 2007

We’ve tried hard to give Vance numerous opportunities to learn about the civil rights movement. Originally from the Atlanta area, we’ve taken him to the Martin Luther King National Historic Site, we’ve attended plays and visited sites about slavery and discrimination, and we hope to instill in him a respect for different cultures and races. We’re encouraged that he doesn’t seem to understand what the fuss is about, that of course people should be treated the same.

Vance attended a multicultural elementary school from Kindergarten thru 2nd grade, and he walks the walk - he’s had African-American friends, Indian friends, and his best friend, who he still pines for, was Asian (whose parents only spoke Chinese, running a Japanese restaurant!). We have gay and lesbian friends that Vance is close to, and is perfectly comfortable being around. He is truly color blind – to Vance, people are people, and all the labels given to people seem, at least at his young age, to have no real effect on his attitudes.

Unlike Vance, our primary school years began in the 1960s and given the turmoil that our generation went through with integration, it seems remarkable that our own son simply can’t understand why anyone would discriminate against another person over something as unreasonable as skin color. While discrimination is still a very real thing, it gives us hope that Vance’s generation may grow up without the prejudice that ours was party to - at least where skin color is concerned.

Within this context, a visit to the Little Rock Central High National Historic Site, scene of one of the most dramatic showdowns of the civil rights era, was a must. In 1957, after extensive foot dragging by the local school board, Judge Ronald Davies ordered Central High integrated in accordance with the famous Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

In response, Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to ‘protect’ Central High students from violence, by prohibiting 9 African American students (‘The Little Rock 9’) from enrolling in school. After Davies orders the National Guard removed, rioting breaks out. President Eisenhower, calling the rioting ‘disgraceful’, ordered in 1200 members of the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to enforce the court order, placing the Arkansas National Guard under federal orders.

The 9 students, heavily harassed despite the protection of federal troops, attended Central High that year. On May 25, 1958, Ernest Green, the only senior among the Little Rock 9, became the first African-American graduate of Central High School. After an emotional and politically charged school year, Governor Faubus closed the four public Little Rock High Schools for the 1958-1959 school year, in order to prevent further integration.

Segregationist and moderate (those who advocated obeying the U.S. Supreme Court decision) whites squared off over the issue of continued desegregation. Segregationist intimidation and threats of economic boycotts silenced the city’s civic and business leaders. Into this leadership void stepped the women of the Women’s Emergency Committee (WEC), the first organization to publicly condemn the school-closing action and to support reopening the schools under the Little Rock School District’s desegregation plan.

After a recall election, segregationist school board members were removed, and the schools are reopened 1 month early for the next school year, segregated.

The Central High National Historic Site Visitor Center is located in a former Mobil gas station located on the corner across from Central High (authentic right down to the 1957 price of gas per gallon on the vintage gas pumps). Many reporters used the phones at the station to call in reports of the events at the school. Today, there is a small but thorough museum covering the events leading up to and following the integration of ‘The Little Rock Nine’. The center has a pretty tough Junior Ranger program, requiring Vance to spend several hours looking up dates, names and events.

Denise listened in on a fascinating Ranger discussion of other issues at play which made the entire event a cultural war with numerous fronts, including:

• The black community was concerned about losing ‘their’ high school, which was slated to be closed and replaced. Black families agonized over what to do about educating their children. On one hand they wanted their children to have equal opportunity for their education and at the same time they feared for the physical safety and mental/emotional well-being of their children.

• Inner city residents resented school board members from outlying suburban areas pushing the integration ~ they felt that they had become guinea pigs in a cultural experiment.

• Governor Orval Faubus had a reputation as a ‘hick from the Ozarks’, who was widely disliked in the Little Rock area.

• The constitutional issues raised by the use of State National Guard troops to prevent the enforcement of a Federal Court order.

September 25, 2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the day that U.S. Army troops escorted the nine African American teenagers into the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School for their first full day of classes. As part of the commemorative events, the National Park Service will dedicate a new visitor center on September 24th directly across the street from the old Mobil station. The anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on the courage of the ‘Little Rock Nine’ in fighting for all of our rights and to celebrate their achievements. It is also a time for us to look to today and acknowledge that the struggle for equal educational opportunities continues. All of the members of the Little Rock 9 went on to have successful and sometimes remarkable lives.

It's easy to sit back today and say what what we would have done in the same situation as the students at Central High (indeed, Sports Illustrated recently ran an article interviewing members of the Central High 1957 football team, where many of the former athletes regret their actions at the time). However, an uncomfortable question to ask oneself is would we have the courage to 'do the right thing' if we were present back then, given the tenor of the times, the attitudes of many of the parents, and the unbridled hate and retaliation directed at anyone who seemed sympathetic towards the black students. The answer, sadly, is probably not.

Later in the afternoon, Vance had been lobbying for a visit to a children’s museum. He was disappointed that we weren’t able to go to one in Nashville, so we made a point to visit the Arkansas Museum of Discovery in the Little Rock Riverwalk District, just down from the Clinton Library. This is a gem of a museum, where we all learned a good bit. They had a good exhibit on the history of computers, where I was able to show Vance some of the early computer systems that either I or his grandfather (a 30 year IBM veteran) had worked on.

Another area we particularly enjoyed was on alternative energy sources. One exhibit showed how electrical net metering works – a solar panel powered a model doll house, displaying the current load as devices (lights, ovens, air conditioners, etc…) were turned on, and how additional power from the grid might be needed as the load increased.

Another wonderful display showed how Hydrogen and Oxygen could be created from water using electricity from a solar cell, and then later recombined in a fuel cell. Combined with displays on wind power, oil and natural gas, hydropower, and electrical power generation, it was an interesting and well done exhibit. Given my interest in renewable power generation, and Vance’s science and physics studies in these area’s (using the wonderful Brainpop online educational software), this was a good find.

Finally, tying into our visit to Central High, the museum had an exhibit about the early radio and TV stations in Little Rock, including a recreation of a TV studio using old TV equipment. Of particular interest was ‘TV School’, perhaps the first attempt at distance learning using video. During the school shutdown of 1958, TV School was started in order to broadcast classes – each of the three TV stations in Little Rock broadcast several hours of classes a day, sponsored by the Women’s Emergency Committee. Learning about this was a great way to bring together everything we had learned today.

Wrapping the day up, we dined at a restaurant my brother would love, the Flying Fish Cafe. Decorated with pictures of the ones that didn't get away, plus walls of stuffed fish, it was loud, noisy, and tasty. A good ending to a good day.

Vance: The Little Rock Central High School NHS was about segregation. Segregation was separating blacks from whites. 9 students attempted to enter the high school, but the AR National Guard stopped them. They were very brave, and I honor them. Segregation was a horrible, horrible period in the 20th century. All of the Little Rock 9 are still alive today!

The Discovery Museum was interesting. They had a crime scene we solved. There was also a spot where you could learn about teeth, and health. They also had a solar power section. Finally, we played around a little bit more and left.


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