Sixty years before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, nine black teenagers in Little Rock, Arkansas, took a stand.
The pictures have since become iconic: Elizabeth Eckford stoically walking as a white mob jeers and shouts at her; Terrence Roberts and Carlotta Walls LaNier clutching textbooks under the cover of armed soldiers; Minnijean Brown arriving at Little Rock Central High School, escorted by the 101st Airborne Division.
Hundreds of people recently attended a ceremony at the high school to commemorate the 60th anniversary of its integration by the Little Rock Nine.
“I feel like I’m visiting a religious shrine,” said Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., speaking in the school’s auditorium Monday. “And if this is a shrine, ladies and gentlemen, these are the saints.”
The surviving members of the Little Rock Nine addressed the high school’s current students. By Sept. 25, 1957, they had withstood the mobs, a hostile governor and the Arkansas National Guard in one of the most iconic moments of the civil rights movement.
“The integration of Central High was so early in the civil rights movement, it was before many of the counter sit-ins. It was before the [Freedom] bus rides,” said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “That fact gives us all an even greater appreciation for the lonely steps of the Little Rock Nine.”
But members of the Little Rock Nine say they see activists today taking steps just as lonely.
“Emmett Till turns to Heather Heyer in Charlottesville protesting Nazis,” said Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine. “Muhammad Ali turns to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee for injustice. And the Little Rock Nine turns to the Charleston Nine, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for peaceably assembling in a church.”
Almost every member of the Little Rock Nine was quick to warn those in attendance at the ceremony that the march for justice is far from over.
“Today we have [president] number 45, who behind the scenes and through his Twitter account, we become as we were 60 years ago – anxious and worried and concerned about what lies ahead,” said LaNier.
Nor was she the only dignitary to reference President Trump. Former President Bill Clinton, an Arkansas native, acknowledged the disparity between the ceremony in Little Rock and Trump’s rally in Alabama, a rally where Trump referred to a hypothetical football player kneeling during the national anthem as a “son of a bitch.”
“I heard that rally down in Alabama, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I gotta come look at the Little Rock Nine,’” Clinton said. “They’re down there talking in ways you haven’t heard since George Corley Wallace, the governor of Alabama, and again — they’ve forgotten the history.”
Trump’s comments exposed a selective patriotism, one that allows him to vilify black athletes who have the temerity to protest, but see “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville.
“We don’t want to go back there. We don’t want to give in to hate,” Clinton said. “Are we really going to let the 200 years of our struggle to get over the idea that our differences are more important than our common humanity just be blown away?”
Clearly, 60 years after the Little Rock Nine overcame massive resistance to integrate an Arkansas high school, the country is reeling from the bigotry and hatred once again given a voice by President Trump.
Today, as in the 1960s, it is easy for some Americans to see any disruption of the status quo as going “too far.” Peaceful protestors have long been asked to silence their concerns and patiently wait for justice, but it has been through bravely pushing forward with such protest that justice has been won. As LaNier reminded those in attendance, “In the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘We have come too far to turn back now.’”