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Profiles of the Nine


THE NINE: Members of the Little Rock Nine.
  • THE NINE: Members of the Little Rock Nine.

In the past year, the Arkansas Times caught up with each of the Little Rock Nine for interviews — some on the fly as they were in town for special events, some on the phone and one during the taping of a video for the Times website. Each was asked to assess the kind of progress the nation has made toward an equal society, including any observations of current-day Little Rock they might want to make. To the latter, Elizabeth Eckford repeated the admonishment that appears on the plaque that accompanies her bronze statue on the grounds of the state Capitol: Little Rock must “honestly acknowledge its painful stand in the past to have reconciliation.” The Times' re-examination of the Crisis of Little Rock for this 50th anniversary issue will attempt to move the city toward that reconciliation.

Ernest Gideon Green

Managing director, Lehman Brothers, Washington, D.C.

Born: Sept. 22, 1941, in Little Rock.

Parents: Ernest and Lothaire Green.

Education: First black graduate of Central High School. B.A. social science, M.A. sociology, Michigan State University.

“Ernest Green, the oldest and a senior, was a member of my church. His warm eyes and quick smile greeted me each week at Sunday School. His aunt, Mrs. Gravely, had taught me history in junior high.”

— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry”

As the school year ended in 1958, Central High Principal Jess W. Matthews told graduating senior Ernest Green he'd mail him his diploma. But Green insisted on walking, one black in a sea of 600 white students. The only cheers that arose as he crossed the stage and took his diploma came from his family. Sitting with them was Martin Luther King Jr.

On that day, Green said, he knew he was breaking a barrier and that what he had done was important. He'd gone to Central to widen the educational opportunity for himself and other black teen-agers in Little Rock.

“But I don't think any of us thought it was something that was going to be recognized 50 years later,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

When Green was a teen-ager, civil right atrocities were being committed. He kept up with the tragedy of Emmett Till, a young black man who was beaten and drowned for speaking to a white woman in Mississippi and whose attackers went unpunished. Injustice was sharply defined and deeply felt. The challenge for black kids in 2007, Green said, is to find opportunities to make a difference — “that some kid can feel as inspired as I did that there are bottomless opportunities out there.”

Green's parents had a vision: “They had enough foresight to believe this [going to Central] was something important to participate in.”

Yet, what happened at Central was far worse than they anticipated. “Each of us up until the time the governor called out the National Guard thought there would be a minor blip on the screen and that the resistance would not be as vocal and as harsh.” But Orval Faubus wanted to “outseg Jim Johnson,” Green said. Had Faubus done the right thing in Little Rock, “school desegregation in the South would have gone a lot smoother.”

Today there's a feeling, Green said, that a focus on race is no longer needed — hence the backlash against the system of affirmative action, which was meant to give a leg up to those who've been crippled by a segregationist system. But, he said: “Race is the elephant in the corner. ... It permeates a large percentage of the things we do.” Racism is still throwing up barriers to economic success and access to better schools and housing.

“Slavery has been a tremendous scar on this country,” Green said. “We haven't gotten, in many cases, beyond it as we should. I think we haven't seen that we are interdependent on each other. We see it in world markets. But [not] when you look across the street in your neighborhood.”

Minnijean Brown Trickey

Activist for social justice, former deputy secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Born: Sept. 11, 1941, in Little Rock.

Parents: Willie and Imogene Brown.

Education: Finished high school at New Lincoln in New York City. B.A., M.A. social work, Carleton College, University of Ottawa.

“Since she lived only a block away from me, we saw each other almost every day. We had much in common; both of us were tall for our age, and we shared daydreams — our worship of Johnny Mathis and Nat Cole, and our desire to sing.

— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry.”

Minnijean Brown Trickey is widely remembered as the black girl who dumped chili on a racist group of boys in the Central cafeteria (to the applause, Melba Beals writes, of the black lunchroom staff). That was just one volley in a battle against racism Trickey has fought all her life.

But in a documentary filmed for the Arkansas Times with her daughter, Spirit Trickey, 27, a park ranger at the Central High National Historic Site, Minnijean Trickey sounds a defeated note. Of her speaking tours, she said, “I don't feel that my message gets to the people.” Could it be, she wondered, that because the schools are integrated, everybody thinks the world is now OK?

“The sort of cultural, language, class segregation [today] is more frightening. At least in [1957] I thought there was an outcome ... that would be of use. Now I see a negative outcome,” she said.

Trickey believes that young black people “feel we failed them” because of the prejudice they continue to face. “That anger they are expressing now toward each other ... that's really unfortunate.”

“If I ruled the world,” Trickey said, she would like to help youth “harness that anger for good.”

Even Trickey evinced surprise at her own disillusionment. The expression of it came in response to questions from her daughter, who is still fighting racism 50 years after her mother made history.

It wasn't until the 40th anniversary that Spirit Trickey fully appreciated the significance of her mother's willingness to integrate Central High. “When we came down in 1997 [I thought], ‘Here I am flunking out of my math class and my mother was changing the world.' ”

Minnijean Trickey credited her own mother, Imogene Brown, for giving her the strength to go to Central. “You put a million hours in,” as a parent, Trickey told her daughter. That investment pays off.

Imogene Brown and other older black people “have been very forgiving,” Spirit Trickey said. “Granny grew up in a society that oppressed her.” But Spirit Trickey can bring her husband, Trey, who is white, “to her house, and she welcomes him with open arms. You'd think she'd be bitter. ...

“It's the reason you guys [the Nine] didn't go nuts — the principle of non-violence.”

Her mother agreed. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s “expressed great anger, but it transformed anger.” Today's civil rights strides have been slowed by apathy, Minnijean Trickey said. People of color don't see themselves as the image of America — this she's learned from her work with teen-agers — and white American leaders are still stuck in a battle over whether evolution is theory or fact.

So, segregation still exists. It's ironic, Spirit Trickey noted, that when she talks to groups of children about Central in her role as park ranger — “trying to explain to them that segregation is over” — it's often groups of all black kids or all white kids.

Thelma Mothershed Wair

Retired teacher and Red Cross volunteer.

Born: Nov. 29, 1940, Bloomberg, Texas.

Parents: Arlevis Leander and Hosanna Claire Moore Mothershed.

Education: Earned diploma from Central through correspondence courses. B.A. home
economics, M.A. guidance and counseling, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Thelma Mothershed and I were friends who saw each other frequently. Small like Elizabeth [Eckford], but with a very pale complexion, her wise eyes peered through thick-lensed glasses. She had a heart problem that, at times, changed her pallor to a purplish hue and forced her to rest on her haunches to catch her breath.”

— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry”

Thelma Mothershed Wair uses a wheelchair to get around now. Even as a child, her health was shaky, because of a heart condition. She was diminutive compared with the rest of the Nine; it's hard to imagine that teen-agers would throw things at her or accuse her of kicking them. It's also hard to imagine her as one of a handful of black teens in a sea of 2,000 white students at Central High.

Today, Wair is philosophical. She blames Gov. Orval E. Faubus for “stirring up” trouble prior to the entry of the Nine into Central and said integration should have begun at the kindergarten level. Of her experience, she says: “I'm glad I did it. It made a difference in the world. That's the way it should be.”

As a teacher, Wair said, she treated all her students the same, white or black. “I had a lot of white students, and I was able to teach them.” And, she added, “I gave them the grades they deserved.”

So, things are better. “But not perfect,” she said. “How do we get to be perfect?”

Jefferson A. Thomas

Retired accountant, U.S. Department of Defense.

Born: Sept. 1, 1942, in Little Rock.

Parents: Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Thomas.

Education: Graduated from Central High School in 1960.

“Jefferson Thomas was a quiet, soft spoken athlete — tops in his class. His sense of humor was subtle, the kind that makes you giggle aloud when you're not supposed to.”

— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry”

Jefferson Thomas is philosophical about the progress America has made toward a fair society.

“Race relations are like the market,” he said in a brief interview at the Peabody Hotel in May. “You don't invest expecting to sell the next day and make a profit.”

Thomas invested 50 years ago when he volunteered to help integrate Central High. Before an audience at Central this year, he talked about that era's race relations, using as an example his meeting with School Superintendent Virgil T. Blossom in the days before school was to open.

Blossom had asked him which adults he had talked with before deciding to enter Central. “ ‘My mother and father,' ” was his answer, Thomas said.

The conversation continued: “So [Blossom] asked me, ‘Did you speak to Mrs. Daisy Bates?' ‘No I don't know who she is.' ”

Afterward, Thomas said, his mother asked him why he had said he didn't know Daisy Bates, who was a family friend. “ ‘That's the Daisy Bates I know?' ” Thomas recalled asking his mother. He explained: “I'd never heard a white man refer to a person of color as ‘Mrs.,' so he threw me off.”

Thomas displayed some of the humor Beals referred to when talk turned to the Nine and non-violence as a civil rights strategy. “I had no problems with non-violence. I was a good runner.”

In the interview, Thomas recalled that in the early days of the 1957-58 school year, the students would meet at Bates' house, where she would quiz them on what happened during the day. They went through a Central yearbook Bates had to put names to the faces of those who were causing problems. “There were 150 to 175 raising all the hell out of 2,000,” Thomas said. He confessed that he had thought the kids were going to be friendly. “It was very discouraging.”

Today, he's discouraged by the educational system. Despite the federal “No Child Left Behind,” Thomas said, he believes today's system is leaving all kids behind.

Melba Patillo Beals

Motivational speaker, consultant, former newscaster, author of “Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Central High” and “White is a State of Mind.”

Born: Dec. 7, 1941, in Little Rock.

Parents: Howell and Dr. Lois Marie Patillo.

Education: Finished high school in Santa Rosa, Calif. B.A. journalism, San Francisco State, M.A. journalism, Columbia University.

“I was running as fast as I could. The lace on my shoe came untied. My feet got tangled. As I hit the ground, I bit down hard on my tongue. I felt his strong hands clutch my back. I bolted up, struggling to get away. He pulled me down and turned me on my back. ... I struggled against him, but he was too strong. ... ‘I'll show you niggers the Supreme Court can't run my life,' he said as his hand ripped at my underpants.”

— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry”

A 13-year-old Melba Patillo was attacked in 1954 on the day the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling came down that schools should not be segregated. She escaped, thanks to another child who happened on the attack. It was the first in several dangerous encounters that a young Melba Patillo Beals would endure; during the year she integrated Central High School, boys beat her, tried to set her on fire and held a switchblade to her throat. If it weren't for her grandmother, India Peyton, she might not have stuck it out. Her New Year's Eve resolution that year: “To do my best to stay alive until May 29.”

Today, at 65, having made a successful career in communications, Beals has “more power and more equality” and she believes society is moving forward. Her own children — a grown daughter and twin 16-year-olds — don't expect rude treatment and don't put up with any if they get it.

“I'm grateful to the people of Arkansas who've made this journey with us,” Beals said of those who have cast off prejudice. “We're not everyone on the same place on the road, but everybody is on the road, they're climbing up the hill. They'll get there; I have faith.”

Beals has seen prejudice, even in her own family. The birth mother of her adopted twin boys was a Russian Jew, their father black. The boys' complexion was fair, and they'd been brought up, Beals said, by “a racist parent.” They told Beals that they didn't like black people.

“I had to make a transformation,” Beals said. She bought a jet black “curly-headed” teddy bear and named him Mandela de Klerk. When it came time to read to the boys, she put the bear beside her. She told them the bear got that favor because he was black. When the boys asked, “Can we hold him?” she'd reply, “How are you feeling about black people today?” They finally got to hold Mandela, but as she handed him over she warned, “Make sure you don't hurt his feelings.”

The twins were “the best thing that ever happened to me,” Beals said. “I learned a tremendous amount.”

So did they. When they were older boys, Beals remembered, and she showed up at school one day, “One kid screamed across the lot, ‘Hey, Matthew, your mother is big and black.' ”

“My mother got the Congressional Medal of Honor and your mother is never getting that,” was Matthew's retort. He's farther down the road, and he's not alone.

Elizabeth Ann Eckford

Probation officer for the Pulaski County courts, former U.S. Army military reporter.

Born: Oct. 4, 1941, in Little Rock.

Parents: Oscar and Birdie Eckford.

Education: Finished high school through
correspondence courses. B.A. history, Central
State University, Wilberforce, Ohio.

“Elizabeth Eckford was petite, a very quiet, private person who had smiled and waved at me across the hallway in our old school. She was regal in her bearing and, like all of us, very serious about her studies.”

— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry”

In May, at an event honoring retired business leader E. Grainger Williams for his open support of integration as head of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce in 1958, Elizabeth Eckford rose from her seat in the audience and approached the front. She turned to the crowd and spoke about Williams' daughter, Ann, her classmate at Central in 1957. She was a girl who treated Eckford like any other person, and Eckford wanted her acknowledged. “His daughter reached out to me,” Eckford told a reporter later.

It was an unforgettable moment, people in the audience said later — a show of emotion from a usually reticent member of the Little Rock Nine.

But Eckford says the events of the past few years have brought a measure of healing. “I have finally reached the point where I can talk [about the past] without crying,” she said.

Will Counts' photograph of Eckford being taunted by a classmate (Hazel Massery, who posed for another picture arm and arm with Eckford in 1997) came to symbolize Little Rock and Arkansas in the minds of the nation and world as a lawless, backward place, where adults would mob a 16-year-old girl trying to go to school and threaten to lynch her, and used soldiers with rifles to violate the law of the land.

“All of us are deeply scarred,” Eckford said. “Even the most gregarious of us was not able to talk about it for 20 years.”

When Eckford moved back to Arkansas in 1974, she said: “People would talk about Ernest Green and Daisy Bates. But they ignored the rest of us.” The full story — and all its horrors — weren't addressed or taught in the schools. Then, in 1987, the NAACP marked the 30th anniversary of Central's integration and brought the Little Rock Nine together for the first time in 30 years. The healing process began. The Central High Museum opened at the 40th anniversary. In 1999, President Clinton presented each of the Nine the Congressional Medal of Honor.

What has touched Eckford's heart the most are the bronzes of the Nine, created by John Deering and installed on the grounds of the state Capitol in 2005. Posing on a brutally hot Saturday in August for a photograph next to the representation of her teen-aged self, Eckford smiled. “I embrace this,” she said. “I bring all my friends and family here.”

For the past several years, Eckford has returned to Central High, addressing California teen-agers participating in the Sojourn to the Past civil rights project. In April, she talked about how people stood by and did nothing to protect her from the segregationist mob.

Don't stand by, she told them. “You might be someone's hope someday. If you're someone's hope, you can help someone live one more day.”

Gloria Ray Karlmark

Retired patent attorney, lives in The Netherlands.

Born: Sept. 26, 1942, in Little Rock.

Parents: Harvey C. and Julia Miller Ray.

Education: Finished high school in Kansas City, Mo. B.A. chemistry and math, Illinois Institute of Technology, earned degree in patent law abroad.

“Gloria Ray was another member of my Sunday School class. Delicate in stature, she was as meticulous about her attire as she was about her studies. Her all-knowing eyes grew even more intense as she spoke in softly measured words.”

— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry”

Gloria Ray Karlmark summed up her experience at Central High School in 1957 as follows: “People really hated me and my world changed.”

Karlmark was bedeviled by one student in particular, who, at one point, knocked her down. She found a sharpened nail in the seat of her chair in one class. But like others of the Nine, she kept things to herself, as did her parents. “My parents kept so much away from me so I didn't have to worry. ... [I thought] OK, if I survived, then OK I don't have to tell about it.” She said a group of Masons kept watch over her family.

In Little Rock for the NAACP convention last spring, Karlmark remarked on the current state of race and education in Little Rock: “Jeepers, there are a lot of problems here.”

When she was a student at Central, Karlmark said, with the exception of her trigonometry teacher, “I had teachers who, no matter how well I performed, would not give me a fair grade.” The worst result of the crisis, she said, was that Gov. Orval E. Faubus closed the schools. “It's criminal to deny young people access to an education and a future.”

At a banquet for NAACP meeting attendees she had attended the night before an interview, Karlmark said, she heard a speaker say that “a new system where some children are allowed to be left behind” was in place in the Little Rock School District. She was referring to Advanced Placement classes, which have a largely white enrollment though the district is majority black.

James Murray, an Arkansas Times intern who is a junior at Hendrix College, told Karlmark about his high school experience at Hall, where he said black students considered taking AP classes “nerdy.” Karlmark and Murray agreed they were both nerds and shared a laugh, but Karlmark wondered seriously whether the schools were doing all they could to encourage black students to take advanced studies.

Karlmark said she never faced discrimination in Europe — she was considered “interesting,” instead — and was having a hard time believing such divisions still existed in her former home. “In the United States,” she said, people still think in “terms of black and white.”

Carlotta Walls LaNier

Owner, real estate firm, Englewood, Colo.

Born: Dec. 18, 1942, in Little Rock.

Parents: Cartelyou and Juanita Walls.

Education: Graduated from Central High School in 1960. BS, Colorado State College.

“Carlotta Walls was an athlete, very sleek and wonderfully energetic. Everything she said or did was quickly executed. She was a girl-next-door-type, always in a good mood, always ready to try something new.”

— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry”

Carlotta Walls LaNier is working on a memoir of her experience at Central High, which she intends to title “Or Die Trying.” That's what she said 50 years ago, after her home was bombed and a reporter asked her if she would go back to school the next day.

What did she think of the book published earlier this year that put forth the theory that the Little Rock School Board had misused Gov. Orval E. Faubus and had forced his hand when he called out the National Guard?

“If he'd wanted to do the right thing,” LaNier said in a brief interview at the Peabody Hotel last spring, “he would not have called out the [Guard] to keep us OUT of school.” Arkansas was a “moderate state,” LaNier said, and she believes many of the agitators came, not from Little Rock, but from out in the state. “Faubus needed them,” she said.

She also believes desegregation “would have gone smoother had it not been for the adults.” In her second year at Central (when the Guard was no longer in the hallways), LaNier recalled, the Student Council showed leadership in keeping things cooler. There were troublemakers, of course, and the Nine suffered unforgivably at their hands. How did she cope? “I stayed above it. I considered them ignorant.” (Later, at a ceremony at Central High to unveil the commemorative coin that honors the Nine, she told the audience: “I was not taught to hate at home. I knew I was just as good as the next person.”

LaNier graduated from Central in 1960. “Kids asked me, why did you go back [after Faubus closed the schools]? I needed that diploma to validate what I'd gone through,” she said.

Like others of the Nine, LaNier didn't think of herself as a seminal figure in the history of civil rights until the 30th anniversary in 1987, when all of the Nine were in town together for the first time since Ernest Green got his diploma. “That was when it really started to set in,” she said. More than a decade later, the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Nine “said more to me [about her role in the crisis] than anything else.”

But, LaNier added: “The heroes are really the parents. They are the ‘he-roes' and the ‘she-roes.' ”

We had to go home to parents who didn't know what to say. ... Our home was bombed. And the FBI put the blame on a neighbor up the street and he spent 20 months in jail. He didn't do it.”

Dr. Terrence James Roberts

Psychologist and professor at Antioch University in Los Angeles; owns consulting firm.

Born: Dec. 3, 1941, in Little Rock.

Parents: William and Margaret Roberts.

Education: Graduated from high school in Los Angeles. B.A. sociology, University of California; M.S. social welfare, UCLA; PhD psychology, Southern Illinois University.

“Tall, thin Terrence Roberts was a junior like me, and a friend since first grade. He was a very verbal person who could be counted on to give the funniest, most intelligent analysis of any situation. I adored his way of always humming a cheerful tune when he wasn't talking.”

— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry”

Last fall, Dr. Terrence Roberts was asked if he believed there was still segregation in the South.

“Yes, south of Canada,” he is reported to have replied.

The wit he's famous for was biting, the situation he referred to serious: continued segregation in America.

In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Roberts, a frequent speaker at college and other events across the country, said America has made some progress in race relations. (“That's a compromise on what I usually say,” he added, laughing. “My wife says, ‘you can't say that' ” to his more negative assertions.)

“What I do think is that the changes are superficial. They're pretty much surface, there's a pretty thin civil layer.” The country has never addressed what he called the “big issue”: “that whiteness remains a standard.”

When conservatives throw up names like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as evidence that blacks have made great strides toward equality, Roberts observed, “I say there's only so far you can go down that list.”

Roberts suffered mightily during his year at Central High — “We were all pretty much battered.” In the past, he's described what went on as “just evil.”

That was 1957. Thirty-one years later, Roberts said, he and his wife moved into a house in a mostly white neighborhood and were welcomed by a neighbor who mentioned that “she had voted for us in the neighborhood watch council.” In effect, the neighbors had voted to see whether, as a group, they would support the black couple joining them in the community, though legally there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. The vote went their way, Roberts said, and he and his wife “stuck it out for 10 years. Then we moved into a neighborhood with more rational people.”

Change is slow to come, Roberts tells his Antioch students, because those who benefit from the status quo have no incentive to make life better for others. So how do we achieve a fair society? “One of the things I've often dreamed about,” he said, is that the nation would be asked to address its prejudices by “a leader in the White House who has an understanding about things.” What we need, he said, is a leader “who's willing to think beyond the ordinary.”

Perhaps the 50th anniversary events will stir a national awakening to the existing inequities and prejudices. The Nine will do their part: They'll be “like little puppets, pulled around and highlighted and showcased,” Roberts said. There was a time when he wouldn't have played that game, but today he believes it “serves a purpose, as symbology, and is an opportunity to bring up these issues.”

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