Between Little Rock and This Hard Place

Jose Vilson Education, Featured, Jose, Race

“She wasn’t with the rest of the other Black students. Can you imagine having all those harassers, reporters, and guards blocking her from letting her get into school?”

As I was listening to the ranger tell us the story of Elizabeth Eckford’s first day of school at Central High School in Little Rock, I found myself zoning out.

In a few hours, I’d be telling an audience of mostly white educators, business leaders, and students that they need to incorporate a sense of activism in their approach to loving and showing compassion for our kids. I had been nervous about this event because of the breakneck schedule I’d undertaken to get there.

Flight delays. Cancellations. Maintenance issues. Broken laptops. Snapped watches. Erased notes, remarks, and slides. Too many “first world” problems in a 48-hour window.

Our first morning in Little Rock, AR started with a casual breakfast and a visit to the Clinton Presidential Library, courtesy of Noble Impact and the Clinton School of Public Service. My poker face didn’t give much away in terms of my aforementioned issues or the critical thoughts triggered by different renditions of the 42nd president’s legacy in this country. Instead, I let the experience just be. 

After lunch, I felt this nervousness about my remarks. Would my words make sense? Do they matter? Will they spark someone to change direction or embolden them to follow the harder path? Could I deliver them with the right level of urgency and passion that they’d understand how much this all means to me?

Most of my concerns washed away when I took a tour of Little Rock Central High School, still the brown-and-grey castle-like edifice I’d seen in the pictures. I expected neither the foliage surrounding the school nor the stillness of the school’s surroundings. All I’ve known through the pictures and stories are the crowds of segregationists who couldn’t stand having black kids going to the same school as white kids, and the trauma they were willing to inflict in order to defy the Supreme Court for their own conservative interests.

I immediately started to record our surroundings, hoping to capture the moment by any means. As soon as I walked up the first set of steps, I knew I already got further up than the teenage Eckford had gotten half a century ago. I walked through the doors when I remembered we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside. The auditorium felt like it had enough seats for the entire town.

I slid into a seat a few rows back from the tour and had a moment to process, and shed a few tears. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of the rest of the onlookers, my entry into this site and this work meant and means too much more. I stand on the shoulders of the Little Rock 9 and the innumerable set of activated people of all ages who observed that separate would never be equal … and risked their lives to do something about it. I look in the mirror and know that I can’t take this work lightly.

Currently, we’re at pre-Brown vs Board of Education levels of school segregation, a strong indicator of inequity. But, while the Democratic Party prepared to preach hope and breaking glass ceilings in Philadelphia, I felt deep-seated angst at the state of educational equity. I kept thinking to my students who, despite their intellect, curiosity, and love, won’t get the institutional guarantees and access they deserve. I think about adults who share my passion and love for this, only to be stunted and shunned for pointing out these inequities as a core principle. I think about the community members who’ve seen savior after savior promising to make things better and seeing their aspirations crushed under the guise of pseudo-democracy.

I think about all the shoulders we’re standing on and how many of the folks, dead or alive, did what they had to do so I’d shut up about my relatively simple problems.

In that moment, I knew I’d just have to talk. I’m glad everyone was sitting down. This truth necessitates that we stand up.