Students look back at sharing Central High with blacks, crisis

September 24, 2007 5 min read

LITTLE ROCK (AP) — They didn’t all shout when the black students entered Central High School.

Most, some students say 50 years after the fact, stayed away from the nine black teenagers who began classes at the school in the fall of 1957, remaining across the hall when passing them and keeping their heads down.

A few helped the students. Others harassed, tripped or tormented them. But they say much of the chaos remained outside, as the throng of protesters, reporters and soldiers kept watch over the expansive brick school.

“I remember walking down the halls every day and I thought they must be lonely because they would walk over here and we would walk over here. We did not want there to be a problem,” says Saundra Dean Callaway, a high school senior at the time. “I feel kind of bad about that, even at the time, but I didn’t want there be something involved where there would be trouble for them or us.”

In 1957, Little Rock was home to bobby soxers, a powerhouse high school football team and clear racial divisions.

Ralph Brodie, then-student body president, remembers playing baseball with black children while visiting his uncle’s home in Jacksonville, but never interacting. Callaway worked in her mother’s restaurant around black cooks, but never served any black customers. Lynn Weber Sigmund would trade comics and talk to the black children from a neighbor’s home — but neither would be caught in each other’s yards.

“It didn’t dawn on us when we saw a school bus full of black kids pass our house and go to Dunbar (High School),” Sigmund says. “It just was what they did. There was nothing wrong with it. It was just the way it was.”

“The way it was” kept only white youths on KTHV-TV’s “Steve’s Show,” the Little Rock station’s version of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

“The way it was” had kept black students at Dunbar High School, only a mile away from the all-white Central High School.

That changed in 1957 as a deadline to integrate the school district from the high school down came. Suddenly, the district’s high school students found themselves walking to a school surrounded by a jeering crowd that was waiting for the nine black students who had signed up to enter the school.

“If you were ‘a good kid,’ you stayed the hell inside the school,” Brodie says. “You didn’t go out, you didn’t try to walk out.

“You can imagine how lonely it felt inside of Central High School when no one outside of the school wanted you to stay open.”

Many white students stayed away from their new black classmates. But students who didn’t share classes with them still felt their presence, as landing helicopters interrupted drama classes and bomb threats emptied students out onto sidewalks and the school’s grassy yards.

Over time, the school ignored the bomb threats. But the nine black students continued to be targets of verbal and physical abuse. However, Brodie, who later become an estate-planning lawyer, says only a small number of students offered the Little Rock Nine a “little smart-ass harassment” and bullying.

“We were not policemen, not particularly when you have the 101st there, when you had the National Guard there, when you have the police there, where you have your vice principal,” Brodie said.

Brodie points to news photographs at the time of two of the Little Rock Nine, outside, unmolested. He contrasts that to the infamous image of a student shouting at Elizabeth Eckford as she walked, her eyes hidden behind large sunglasses, betraying no emotion.

Some students who reached out to the nine black students at their own risk. Robin Woods Loucks, 16 at the time, remembers Terrence Roberts walking into her algebra class, accompanied by paratroopers from the 101st Army Airborne. No boy offered to share his textbook, so Loucks scooted over to share her own.

On her walk home that afternoon, a group of students followed, spitting on Loucks and cursing her.

“All I could do is stand up straight and walk on,” Loucks says, her voice wavering with emotion. “Because what I was confronted with, it was something I had never dreamed would happen in the United States, which is man’s inhumanity to man.”

Loucks, who described herself as an outspoken supporter of desegregation, says she and others sent a telegram to President Eisenhower to show their support of his dispatch of federal troops to Central. Angry telephone calls and threatening letters continued throughout the year.

Brodie remembers two friends from Central’s track and field team. They helped black student Ernest Green catch up on work in a science class, something Brodie says his friend only told him about in the last few years. But Brodie believes reporters then and now continue to paint white Southerners as racists.

To that end, Brodie and another man wrote a book based on remembrances of students who experienced the desegregation crisis. It was scheduled to be released Sept. 17 — exactly 50 years after the Arkansas Gazette published an interview by Mike Wallace with a young Ralph Brodie in the New York Post.

“Do you believe all Southerners should live by the law of the land?” Wallace asked Brodie in the telephone interview.

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t,” Brodie told him. “We’ve been living under it for all our lives.”

Now, Little Rock lives under a different set of social rules. Blacks hold a majority on the Little Rock School Board for the first time. Local television news anchors have darker complexions.

However, some divides still exist — the neighborhoods of west Little Rock remain affluent and largely white, as many neighborhoods south of the cross-city interstate remain largely poorer and black. In that way, residents are still walking across the hall from each other, even as the city’s collective memories of the Central High crisis is brought to the forefront.

“I had not done anything. I hadn’t spoken up, I hadn’t walked with any of the black students or anything. And you know it came upon me that, you know, you went to school and you didn’t cause trouble. You were there for them,” Sigmund said. “I finally released myself and said I don’t have to feel guilty. I did what was needed to be done for a 17-year-old in that situation.”

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.