What Boston’s Battle for Integration, Anne Frank, and the Little Rock Nine Can Teach a Divided Country:
A Personal Reflection on Why Black Lives, History, and Education Matter
My Facebook feed reminded me today that, last year at this time, I was attending my 50th High School reunion.
While I do not feel one year wiser, I have been reflecting this summer on the Supreme Court’s June 29th decision (Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University) to strike down affirmative action-based college admission decisions. Declaring that race cannot be a factor in these decisions, the Court has now forced colleges and universities nationwide to find different ways to select a diverse, multi-racial and multi-cultural matriculating class each year.
Critically, if you remember or research the Supreme Court’s 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision—ruling that universities’ affirmative action admission decisions were constitutional, but their racial quotas were not—you will recognize that (a) this new Harvard University case has completed what Bakke started; and (b) universities did successfully find new ways to adapt to the decision and recruit diverse entering classes.
And while the institutions that want a diverse study body—in 2024 and beyond—will again adapt and succeed, the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University decision is yet another historical example of the centuries-long implicit and explicit bias, prejudice, and legal oppression experienced by Black students and the Black community.
Indeed, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Court’s first Latina, wrote in her dissent, (This decision) “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.”
But today, I want to pass on an analysis of how the recent Supreme Court decision occurred, and reflect on a more personal journey of Black unawareness to a greater (but, still incomplete) beginning level of awareness.
We are What We Live
“I did not get it. And, I’m sorry.”
We all necessarily live in an attention deficit world and state of awareness.
And our attitudes, beliefs, and expectations are all influenced by our lived and “unlived” experiences, and positive and negative biases.
There are two kinds of unlived experiences. First are those that are experienced by others, but not by us. If one person lives their entire life in New York City, and another in Unalakleet, Alaska, they each live common, yet unique, experiences that the other never has or would understand.
The second unlived experiences are those that are present in our lives, but that we consciously or subconsciously miss or choose to ignore.
In today's world with hundreds of satellite TV channels, millions of pages of internet sites, and a constant barrage of news, information, entertainment, and other bytes, we all control our unlived experiences by being “attention deficit.”
That is, in order to be productive, maintain our sanity, and sustain our ability to “live in the moment,” we have to choose what we attend to—leaving parts of our lives “unlived.”
But all of us have another dimension of unlived experiences.
Those are the experiences that are unique to when we “grew up”—the broad historical, social, economic, technological, and other contexts present during our childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and so on.
These are the contexts that continually influence us, our communities, our educational system. . . all the way up to who is on our Supreme Court, how individual and coalitions of Judges rule, and what decisions they collectively make.
And these are the contexts that we must allow today’s preschool through high school students to experience.
For when these contexts, experiences, and opportunities—for example, through curriculum, instruction, books, and discussion—are controlled, restricted, or denied, these students have lost their potential to be fully educated and prepared to succeed in their worlds.
I am What I’ve Lived
“I did not get it. And, I’m sorry.”
I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in the suburbs about 20 miles due west of the city. Our school district was integrated, multi-racial, and multi-cultural, but White students and teachers were clearly in the majority.
While I was in High School—fifty years ago—the Viet Nam War was escalating, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, Woodstock and the Antiwar Movement collided, the Civil Rights Movement and racial unrest continued, and the Women’s Rights Movement began.
At the time, I had a number of Black friends, but I knew nothing of Black history—beyond what was superficially taught in American History. Martin Luther King’s assassination was briefly discussed in class, but not in the broader context of 400 years of African-American denial of rights and oppression, slavery and Dred Scott, lynchings and Jim Crow, segregation and red-lining, and Brown v. The Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a decade later.
In fact, in my ignorance, I remember wondering why there was a need for the emerging courses in African-American history—even though I never questioned why there were history courses in Ancient and Medieval History, Comparative Religion, and the Depression and World War II.
And not to excuse my ignorance. . . but when I graduated from High School in 1972, many of us understood the world around us—as discussed above—through our lived and unlived experiences, what we were taught in public school during the week and religious school on the weekend, and what we read on our own. At that time, there were four television stations, a morning and evening newspaper, and a large public library which we used to complete research that was assigned at school.
Clearly: When I “grew up,” we received a White, Eurocentric education. Culturally understanding my Black friends and their history—from a Black perspective—was not on the “agenda.”
Even when I went to college, I did not learn about Black history or interact often with my Black peers. While the opportunities were there at my small liberal arts college, we were largely allowed to choose our own courses. . . and Black history was not typically embedded in the science and psychology courses that I took.
In fact, during my junior year abroad in England, I learned more about British, French, and Italian history and art. . . and the Holocaust. . . than I learned about Black history when I hitchhiked extensively around Europe.
And so. . . relative to my awareness and understanding of Black history, and its depth, breadth, and importance—even as I graduated from college. . .
“I did not get it. And, I’m sorry.”
Boston’s Battle for Integration
Ironically, I went to high school and college during an immensely important time for Black students in my birth-town of Boston.
According to the Encyclopedia of Boston from the Boston Research Center:
In 1965, the Massachusetts General Court passed the Racial Imbalance Act, outlawing segregation in public schools and defining segregated schools as those with a student body comprised of more than fifty percent of a particular racial group. Though 44 of Boston’s schools fell into this category, Boston School Committee members refused to develop or implement plans to integrate the city’s schools.
In response, African-American parents began to organize. They organized protests and boycotts, established “freedom schools” with more inclusive, often Afro-centric curricula, and lobbied for access to better-equipped and better-staffed schools in the suburbs. They established the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) in 1966, which enabled African-American students to travel to surrounding suburban schools. African-American parents also partnered with the NAACP to compel the Boston School Committee to integrate the city’s schools, filing a lawsuit, Morgan v. Hennigan, against the committee in 1972 for its ongoing refusal to comply with the state’s Racial Imbalance Act.
On June 21, 1974, Judge Wendell Arthur Garrity Jr. found the Committee’s efforts to preserve segregation unconstitutional. To address longstanding segregation, Garrity required the system to desegregate its schools, busing white students to black schools and black students to white schools across the city. Garrity’s decision and his subsequent oversight of the busing plan provoked outrage among many Bostonians. Garrity and his family were subjected to frequent death threats and placed under round-the-clock protection for several years as a result.
Critics of the decision also protested that busing would accomplish little other than interracial violence. They argued that moving students from one failing school to another didn’t address the system’s larger failures, pointing to Garrity’s decision to bus students between the poorly performing high schools in South Boston and Roxbury. Though Bostonians often criticized busing on logistical or socioeconomic grounds, their complaints were often motivated by thinly-veiled racism.
Protests erupted across the city over the summer of 1974, taking place around City Hall and in the areas of the city most affected by busing. One prominent leader of these anti-busing protests was Louise Day Hicks, chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and leader of an anti-busing group called Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR). Comprised mainly of women, ROAR staged protests, sit-ins, and prayer sessions, as well as violent protests, arguing that Garrity and the state had usurped the custodial rights of parents. ROAR also worked to intimidate black students, hurling racial epithets at schoolchildren and burning a wooden school bus in effigy. In 1974, ROAR organized a march of thousands on the Massachusetts State House in protest of desegregation.
On September 12, 1974, the first day of school, many students stayed home, some in protest, some for safety. Only 13 students from South Boston High School appeared in Roxbury, and only 100 out of the 1300 students from Roxbury assigned to South Boston High School showed up. When black students arrived in South Boston on buses escorted by motorcycle-mounted police officers, protestors met the buses with eggs, bottles, and bricks. The Massachusetts State Police and the Massachusetts National Guard had to be called in to control the area. Throughout the year, violence flared on and beyond school grounds. Bused children were jeered, menaced, and periodically attacked; many students suffered from stress, fear, and illness as a result. All told, 18,000 students were bused into other neighborhoods in the 1974-75 school year. More than 30,000 Boston Public Schools students left to attend private and parochial schools.
I watched these events from my college perch in Maine and. . .
“I still did not get it. And, I’m sorry.”
Starting to Get It
I went to Graduate School in 1976 in Syracuse, New York.
While there, I started to get it.
But there was no turning point. . . no climactic moment. . . no thunder-and-lightning epiphany.
It simply started with my practicum work in the inner city schools of Syracuse, and a continuing, horrified recognition of the disparities between rich and poor, Black and White, well-resourced schools and those “on the other side of the city” that were dilapidated and forgotten.
While my sense of social justice had always been nurtured by my religious and Jewish youth group upbringing, by the Holocaust and my visits to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps while in college, and by the antisemitism that I periodically experienced. . . this sense now included an urgency to understand the discrepancies that I saw in Syracuse (and soon, in schools across the country).
And so, in order to be an effective psychologist, educator, professional, and person, I have tried to be a student of Black history and experience from my graduate school days on.
And part of this includes my advocacy that every student in this country learn about the full depth of Black history as part of their understanding of American history.
And if some students are uncomfortable confronting the facts of Black history. . . then that is a good thing.
It is the same good thing that explains why at least 20 states in our country require Holocaust education in their schools.
It is the same good thing that encouraged 60 House of Representative bipartisan co-sponsors and the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism to introduce the Holocaust Education and Antisemitism Lessons (HEAL) Act on January 27, 2023.
This Bill, still going through the early stages of the legislative process, will determine which states and school district require and/or offer Holocaust education, identify the standards and requirements framing this education, and analyze the approaches used by schools to assess what students are learning.
The Press Release announcing the filing of this Bill stated:
There is mounting evidence that knowledge about the Holocaust is beginning to fade. A 2020 survey measuring Holocaust awareness in the U.S. found that roughly two-thirds of those asked did not know how many Jewish people died. The survey of Americans between 18 and 40 also found that 48% could not name one concentration camp or ghetto.
Personally, I don’t know anything more emotional than watching scenes from the Holocaust, or anything more troubling than knowing that our President and Congress at the time restricted Jewish immigration and did not immediately respond to documented reports of the death camps.
Anne Frank was 15 years old when she died in February 1945 in the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in northern Germany. She would have been a high school junior.
Shouldn’t every high school junior in our country today be taught about her, and how and why she died? Should they not view and discuss video clips like the one below?
Will they potentially be upset and impacted emotionally? (Yes)
But is this not the right thing to do?
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And, similarly, should not high school juniors not be taught about the full depth of Black history? And should they not view and discuss video clips like the one below
Will they potentially be upset and impacted emotionally? (Yes)
But, once again, is this not the right thing to do?
How can 60 Congressional Representatives agree to co-sponsor a Bill on the Holocaust and antisemitism, and not support legislation that allows teachers across the country to teach the full breadth and depth of Black History without restriction?
“I’m still trying to get it. And, I’m sorry.”
A Final Piece in Little Rock, Arkansas
For 18 years—up until the beginning of this year—I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. When driving to my Arkansas Department of Education office for 13 years there, or to the airport on a consulting trip for all 18 years, I always passed the exit to Central High School. In fact, on a number of occasions, I attended meetings at Central, a National Historic Site since 1998.
On September 4, 1957, the first day of school at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas and three years after Brown v. the Board of Education, nine Black students—Minnijean Brown, Terrance Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls—attempted to enter the previously all-White school.
This was fully 17 years before the buses of Black students arrived at South Boston High School to begin their (desegregated) school year.
Now known as the Little Rock Nine, they were met on the stairs leading up to Central High School’s ornate, yet intimidating, front doors by an angry White crowd, and members of the Arkansas National Guard who were deployed by Governor Orval Faubus to prevent them from going into the school.
Responding to Faubus’ action, Thurgood Marshall—part of a team of NAACP lawyers—won a federal district court injunction to prevent the Governor’s attempt to block the students’ entry. And so, on September 23, 1957, protected by police escorts, the Little Rock Nine entered Central High School through a side entrance and began their classes. Significantly, they were protected by federal troops and the Arkansas National Guard for the remainder of the school year.
Late last month, on the 66th anniversary of their desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School, the same Little Rock Nine gathered at a press conference in Little Rock. Criticizing legislation sponsored by new Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and passed by the Arkansas Legislature in its Spring 2023 session, they decried their State’s—and all States’—legislation restricting what can be taught in public school classrooms.
Indeed, one of Governor Huckabee Sanders’ first official acts after being sworn in on January was to sign an Executive Order prohibiting indoctrination and critical race theory in the State’s schools (even though there was no evidence that these were present). The new March, 2023 law prohibits the teaching of “divisive concepts” about racism and critical race theory, as well as classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation before the fifth grade.
Among those who referenced this legislation at the 66th Little Rock Nine anniversary celebration were:
Robin White, the Superintendent of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Society:
Each generation calls for agents of change. And in their moment of courage and change, 66 years ago, the Little Rock Nine, ages ranged from 14 to 17, (became those agents). So yesterday, today, and tomorrow, they are our symbol of hope. They—without pause—paved the way for us, and we are the benefactors of their sacrifices.
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Jermall Wright, the Superintendent of the Little Rock School District:
(It is) hard to imagine that nine brave young people who were just teenagers, just like you, could cause such a seismic shift in education that would impact generations worldwide.
Their cause was simple: equitable access to receive a quality education. Sixty-six years later, our charge and our cause remains the same.
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Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who highlighted the sacrifices made by the Little Rock Nine and their families, and then discussed how Black history in education was under attack:
But yet there's still Elizabeth Eckford, who stood at 15, but yet some weeks ago, she stood at the age of 81 to ensure that the Little Rock School District made certain that their history, American history, was still taught to each of you.
And that is the type of fight, that is the type of solidarity, that is the type of work ethic that we need to continue to have in the Little Rock School District and the state of Arkansas: not allowing others to revise our history.
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Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, who told the high school students in attendance that there were three things the Little Rock Nine wanted when they integrated their school: Voice, Choice and Inclusion.
She assured the students:
I've got faith in you, baby. You're going to make it, OK? You deserve to be whoever you think you are.
Beals compared lawmakers' bans on critical race theory with the opposition to integrating Central High School.
You did it once in 1957, and look what you got. We are nine monsters just roaming forth. Have you ever in your life seen such big-mouthed people? So do it again and see what you get out of it, OK?
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And, finally, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, another of the Little Rock Nine, who expressed her concern that the history of the desegregation crisis isn't more extensively taught in the United States. She noted that, when she visits other parts of the world, the people there know more about this history than most young people in the United States.
It takes a half-page in your history books, if that, but it's really a complex, amazing story about all components of government, about courts, about persistence of the human spirit.
(I) believe the country grapples with a disease called 'profound intentional ignorance.' When we talk about things like that, it is an intent to have an ill-informed population so that demagogues can do whatever they want.
She said the desegregation crisis hurts both Black and White students, and she encouraged the audience to imagine what a story like theirs did to the city, and to the country. Later, Brown-Trickey said that people need to look beyond Arkansas—that the national effort to restrict curricula is having a chilling effect on education, learning and thinking.
(Young people) are going to get sick of this stuff. They're going to get sick of being told they don't deserve to know. They're going to get tired of being told they're too young to know. They're going to be tired to have somebody decide whether they should feel guilty or not. And they're going to rise up, and I'm waiting for that. I'm helping them in every possible way I can.
This Blog has asserted that our attitudes, beliefs, and expectations are all influenced by our lived and unlived experiences. . . which often establish and anchor our positive and negative biases.
While our lived experiences unfold in both planned and unplanned ways across our lifetimes, we discussed two kinds of unlived experiences: (a) those that are experienced by others, but not by us; and (b) those that are present in our lives, but that we consciously or subconsciously miss or choose to ignore.
But we also noted that many of our experiences (and positive and negative biases) are contextualized by when (i.e., in which decades) we “grew up.” This is because every decade brings different historical, social, economic, technological, and other events to our lives when we were children, adolescents, in early adulthood, and so on.
Sharing an autobiographical journey, this Blog described how my awareness and understanding of Black history and “being Black in America” has evolved over the years—based not just on who I am and where I’ve lived, but also based on the history I have seen and the people with whom I have interacted.
Part of this journey (and discussion) juxtaposes the Holocaust with Black history and the Civil Rights Movement (right up to today—2023).
In the end, this Blog advocates for today’s preschool through high school students—each and every one of them across our country.
Learning the depth and breadth of Black history should not be an unlived experience for these students as they attend school.
No one—especially for political purposes—should take away these students’ rights to this information, knowledge, discussion, and understanding.
Living is made up of thousands of emotional events. And History necessarily involves events that evoke our emotions.
Students need to experience these events and their emotions as part of their lived experiences, and because we are mandated to educate them in the broadest ways possible.
This must be our present. . . because these students are our future.
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How have your lived and unlived experiences, and the events during the decades of your life, influenced your journey and current beliefs regarding these issues?
Will this Blog encourage you to think (and, in some cases, rethink) your beliefs. . . changing them or making them stronger?