Little Rock: Bridging the Past to the Present

In last week’s blog, I wrote about a conversation I moderated at the 92nd Street Y, between the legendary Arthur Mitchell, Dance Theater of Harlem co-founder and the first African-American principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. During that dialogue, Darren made a point about the importance of documenting and preserving the legacy and narratives of African-Americans and assuring that they are transcribed for history. He also struck a chord when he discussed the integral function of the arts in our society: “[The] arts are what make it possible for us to be empathetic. Our empathy comes from our understanding of our humanity and that is not something that just happens…. Without the arts, we won’t have empathy and without empathy, we won’t have justice.”

There is a play opening June 14, 2018, in New York that I believe exemplifies Darren’s point—it’s called Little Rock. The play offers a powerful and artistic narrative to the historical account of the nine courageous African-American students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957, during an early stage of the contentious battle for equality and justice. For those of you unaware of this pivotal moment in American history, I want to provide some background: In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision, which declared segregated schooling unconstitutional, the Arkansas NAACP registered nine black students to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High. These students were selected based on their excellent grades and attendance at the all-Black high school, which was located on the other side of town. They would later become known around the world as “The Little Rock Nine,” and their names are Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, the late Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals.

On that first day of school in 1957, not only were the students met by a large white mob, who threw stones and threatened to kill the them, then-Gov. Orval Eugene Faubus sent the Arkansas National Guard to block the building entrance. The international spotlight on civil rights and this glaring and violent display of American racism, including attacks on journalists working for newspapers in the northern United States, propelled then-Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower to intervene. He sent the elite 101st Airborne Division to take command and to protect the students, which eventually made it possible for them to desegregate the school.

Written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, Little Rock brings to life the untold personal stories of The Little Rock Nine—three teenaged boys and six teenaged girls—highlighting the challenges, resolve and courage it took to stand on the front lines of the emerging civil rights movement to fight for the right to equal education. This is an important and relevant production, especially at this time—it bridges our nation’s past to the present. As producer Harvey Butler puts it: “We find ourselves, 60 years after ‘The Crisis’ in Little Rock, still struggling as a nation with segregated schools, inadequate academic resources, systemic gaps in achievement and unsafe schools. The Little Rock Nine as teenagers were a catalyst that helped accelerate potential resolution of these issues in 1957-58. We hope this play will honor their contribution to American history and encourage a movement that recommits the nation to the pursuit of academic excellence for all—with deliberate policies and strategies that guarantee the right to a quality public education in an environment free of emotional, psychological and physical threat to our future leaders.”

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminded us in her TED talk that the danger “of a single story…. is not that it is untrue but that it is incomplete.” Not only does our nation need great storytellers, we need great storytellers willing to convey the history and experiences of all the people whose struggles and contributions shaped our country. Theater is the perfect platform—it provides all people—no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, faith, cultural heritage, lifestyle, social or economic status—an opportunity for a shared and transformational experience. Dr. Melba Patillo Beals, a member of the Little Rock Nine, recently said: “The task that remains is to embrace our interdependence – to see ourselves reflected in every other human being and to respect and honor our differences.” And Elizabeth Eckford, another member of the Little Rock Nine, added: “If we have honestly acknowledged our painful but shared past, then we can have reconciliation.”

Telling the truth and honoring and respecting the dignity of others are learned behaviors. Daily news reports remind us that we need these lessons right now, more than ever, if we are to ever reconcile the fissures and fractures dividing our nation. That’s why I’m urging all people, not just African-Americans, to see Little Rock, and both witness and experience the bridge between the past and the present. Sixty years ago, it was Little Rock, Arkansas. Today, the frontier of the fight for justice has expanded to include Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Nonetheless, the battle is the same – the right of all youth to have a protective, safe and nurturing environment to learn and to flourish.

With the arts as the bridge, we can cultivate the empathy necessary to awaken (re-awaken) people to become the catalyst for change; with empathy we can recognize, respect and honor our collective humanity, and with empathy we can unite together and fight for justice for all.