Today marks the 57th anniversary of Little Rock Central High School‘s graduation ceremony for the Class of 1958. It’s a shame that it might pass unnoticed by some, as it might have for me had I not been doing research for Broken Dreams, the working title for my sequel to The Red Kimono.
What made May 29, 1958 special? It was the day Ernest Green walked across the stage for his diploma in front of a stadium filled mostly with whites. What makes Ernest Green special? He was one of the Little Rock Nine, and the first African-American to graduate from the previously segregated Little Rock Central High School.
In my research I’ve found several interesting facts I didn’t know about the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School and other civil rights activities, most of which made me ask myself if I could be so brave.
Excerpt from Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965, by Juan Williams:
The mostly white audience applauded enthusiastically as one by one the students came up to receive their diplomas. Then came Ernest Green’s moment. “When they called my name, there was nothing,” he said, “just the name, and then there was eerie silence. Nobody clapped. But I figured they didn’t have to…because after I got that diploma, that was it. I had accomplished what I had come there for.”
I also recently read that Martin Luther King Jr. attended the graduation ceremony.
I incorporated much of this information into a scene that is a pivotal turning point for Sachi, who is 24 years old in the sequel.
Here’s an excerpt from that scene:
As the sun set behind the stadium, the warm humidity of the day turned damp and cool. Sachi buttoned her sweater as she watched the long procession of graduates begin to cross the stage.
Adams, Anderson, Avery…Baker, Bevins, Brown… Cheers came in waves through the audience, led by family and friends of each graduate. Carver, Cassidy, Clayton…Davis, Decker, Draper…More whistles and cheers. Eckhardt, Edwards, Evans…Fenton, Flanders, Franks…Sachi sat up straight, excited to see history made.
Gavin, Gotwals . . . more cheering. Sachi prepared to cheer for the only person she’d come to see.
She stood to clap, but Terrence grabbed her arm and pulled her down. Silence shuddered through the night and she felt a thousand eyes upon her, even as she watched Ernest Green cross the stage, head held high as he accepted his diploma and became the first Negro to graduate from Little Rock Central High School.
She glanced across the bleacher to where his mother sat watching, as if she and her son were the only two people in the world.
The cheering resumed with the call of the next name, and Sachi again felt the loneliness of being in a group of those not wanted. The only comfort she found was in the congratulations being whispered up and down the row of Negros with whom she sat.
The rest of the ceremony dragged on, from H through Z. She only clapped because everyone else in her row clapped, perhaps to be polite. Perhaps because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t.
When at last the graduates sang “On Tigers!” and tossed their caps into the air, Sachi had never been so happy for an event to be over.
As they turned to leave, Terrence touched her arm. “Sachi, Jubie, wait. There’s someone else I’d like you to meet before we leave.”
Sachi turned around. The man who had been sitting next to Daisy was standing next to Terrence.
“Sachi, Jubie, this is Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King, these are my friends, Sachi Clark and Jubie Franklin.”
Dr. King extended his hand, first to Jubie, then to Sachi.
Jubie’s eyes widened with each word she spoke. “Sure is nice to meet you, Dr. King. I’ve read a lot about you.”
As Sachi shook his hand, she could hardly believe this man—the man she’d thought was Daisy Bates’ husband—was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Recalling what she’d read about his involvement with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, she chastised herself for thinking she’d seen him at a grocery story.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Dr. King.”
Though her mind filled with a dozen thoughts, it was all she had time to say to Dr. King before, like a small pebble in a rushing stream, she was pushed with the flow of people headed out of the stadium.
As she drifted in the current of whites and coloreds, she thought again about where she fit in. Was she “white?” Or was she “colored?” She’d gotten “the look” plenty of times for sitting in the front of a bus. And in the silence that came with the announcement of Ernest Green’s name, more than ever, she felt“colored.”
How might her life might have been different if Japanese Americans had protested their internment? Instead, they went along with what the government ordered, believing it was their duty as loyal American citizens. What if they had stood up for their rights? What if they’d had their own Dr. King?
She was tired of wondering if she could be as brave as Ernest Green and the other eight Negro students. Tired of admiring people like Daisy Bates and Dr. King. Admiration wasn’t going to get anyone anywhere. It was time for her to stand up to Nobu. Time for her to join Terrence. Time for her to finally remove her mask.
# # #
I think it’s important to remember historic events and where possible, to put ourselves in the places of the people who lived this history. I’ve done this as I’ve read about this era, and as I said, I’ve asked myself:
Could I have been so brave?
Probably not. But, as Sachi realizes in the excerpt above, nothing would have changed without the courage shown by those involved.
NOTE: Based my research, I’ve done my best to capture this event as realistically as possible, so that hopefully I can “put the reader there.”
However, I’m still in the draft stage. So, if you’re familiar with Little Rock Central High School or this era and catch any glaring errors, I’d be most grateful if you’d point them out!