60 Years Ago Today: The Little Rock Nine, and a Heroic White Woman.

On this date in 1957, nine courageous teenagers tried to enter Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The Supreme Court had issued the monumental “Brown Vs. Board of Education” ruling 3 years earlier, making segregation in schools illegal, yet schools in the south had not yet integrated. Groups like the KKK made what would happen to any African Americans trying to attend a “white” school very clear.  The “Little Rock Nine” wanted to attend Central High, a cathedral of an educational institution.

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Governor Orville Faubus had vowed that he would not allow schools in Arkansas to be integrated.  He sent the National Guard there to forcefully block the entry of the nine.  Thousands of protestors came from Little Rock and all over.  They screamed horrible things at the kids like “Go back to Africa Nigger”, and “2-4-6-8, we don’t want to integrate.”

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One of the nine was Elizabeth Eckford.  She was 15 years old, and this was to be her first day of high school.  The previous day, the others had made a plan on when and where to meet to travel to the school together.  Elizabeth did not have a phone at home, so she did not get word.  When she showed up at school, she was surrounded by the angry mobs who were screaming at her and threatening to kill her if she didn’t leave.

She said:
“I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob—someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”
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Grace Lorch was a 50 year old white woman who had just dropped her daughter off at the Junior High. She decided to drive by the high school to check on how things were going, upon which she saw the mob surrounding Elizabeth Eckford.  She immediately got out of her car and ran toward the danger.  She pushed her way through the crowd, grabbed young Elizabeth by the arm, and led her to safety.

She screamed back at the crowd, “Before any of you touch her, you should just know that I am just aching to punch someone right in the face.’

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Grace Lorch and her husband Lee were not in Little Rock by accident.  They had a distinguished history of standing bravely to fight for the rights of others.  Grace was a teacher in Boston until 1943.  She married Lee when he was about to leave to go fight in World War Two.  She lost her teaching job because Boston had a law that said teachers could not be married.  She never got her job back, but led the fight against the ban until it was overturned in 1953.  Lee was a college Professor who had been fired from three different colleges for sticking up for African Americans.  They had moved to Little Rock so he could teach at a local college in 1954.

The Lorches became targets because of Grace’s bravery at Central High. They were constantly threatened, and their daughter was bullied at school. They came home one day to a cross burning in their front yard.  Then they found dynamite against their garage door. For the safety of their daughter, they decided to leave Little Rock.  Lee was blacklisted by many colleges because of the trouble he had caused, so they moved to Alberta, Canada where Lee could return to life as a professor.  Grace passed away in 1974, Lee lived until 2014.

It would be an incredibly difficult battle, but eight of the nine would make it through the school year.  They did this in large part because President Dwight Eisenhower called in the Army’s 101st airborne division to protect the kids on campus.  The only senior of the group  was Ernest Green.  At graduation, Martin Luther King Jr. would sit with the Green family.

Because of the heroism of these teenagers, other schools in the south began to integrate. The chains of segregation started being broken all over.  Today, we are all better off because of this.

 
We study history to learn from those who end up on the right side of it. The heroes like the Little Rock Nine should forever be learned about and honored.  So too, should the unknown warriors like Grace Lorch who helped them, and us.

By the way, how perfect is it that her name was Grace?

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