I was 14, maybe 15, when the raw emotion of racial injustice hit me. I remember the moment vividly. I was sitting in an English class and our beyond-hip teacher was reading a poem. I remember it as titled Landlady and it was the telephone conversation, on a payphone, between an African tenant and his prospective landlady. This was in England in the early ‘70s. The tenant confesses he is from West Africa and the landlady wants to know how dark he is. She wants him to describe, in shades, the color of his skin. She actually asked that question in the poem. The line that sticks with me, to this day, is his response “the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet are white – as white as yours” is what I remember. That is the moment when I understood, clearly, the pain, futility, and pure senselessness of racial injustice.
Years later, meeting with Elizabeth Eckford in Little Rock, that same pang of raw emotion came flooding back, taking me right back to that school desk. It was never really buried deep. In fact, in organizing programs around the world, it has always been my intent to look at a country, not just through its monuments or even its history, but through its people, and I mean, all of its people, to try and understand what makes that country what it is. Somehow though, when you are not in your own country, those issues are removed from you. You appreciate, you learn, you lament, you admire, you wring your hands but you come home and you continue with your life, separated by thousands of miles from that experience.
Setting out to put together a Civil Rights program right here in the United States, there was no distance to shield me. No ocean to cross to separate me. I had to look at my own backyard and it was not a backyard that I ever thought existed. The Mississippi Delta was a whole new world. Fertile soil that produced so much wealth and, at the same time, so much poverty. Sadness mixed with hope mixed with a cuisine borne out of want and an introspective, soulful music written as a means to forget. In that backyard, I have discovered stories. I have discovered life stories of people who, at remarkably young ages, made the decision to confront racial injustice and challenge it. Elizabeth Eckford is one of those people. At the age of 15, on the morning of September 4, 1957, she left her home determined to attend Central High School, where she knew she would receive an education unavailable to her at her local school, Dunbar.
To even get to that point had required a bravery I can’t comprehend. Unfair qualifying tests, intimidation tactics, and a host of efforts to stop those nine African Americans attending Central High. A quiet, shy teenager Elizabeth sought only to exercise her constitutional right as guaranteed to her in the decision of Brown v. the Board of Education. With no home phone, she did not get the call the other members of the Little Rock Nine had received, and so she arrived, alone, to a sea of hostile faces. She had been comforted the night before with the knowledge that the Arkansas National Guard would be at school, to protect her, she assumed. In reality, it was they who barred her entrance to the school, leaving her to the dangerous, angry mob who believed it was their absolute duty to deprive Elizabeth of getting the very same education they sought for their children.
Graceful, and almost serene, she walked to the bus stop and made it home. She never shared the story with her mother. Afraid, that if her mother knew, she might never be allowed back.
With our groups, I have met Elizabeth Eckford many times. I have listened to her story. I have heard the questions asked and there is always the question “where do you think your courage came from” and always the response “I do not consider myself a courageous person.” This is invariably followed by silence and then the muffled sound of tears. And yet Elizabeth, like Minnie Watson, like Carolyn McKinstry, like Hezekiah Watkins, like Bryan Stevenson, like so many of the voices we hear from on our Civil Rights program are the agents of change. In Jackson, in the Delta, in Little Rock and Memphis and Birmingham and Selma and in Montgomery, it is their quiet heroism that continues to remind us of how much work there is still left to do.
As a traveler said at the end of one of our Civil Rights programs “Before, I understood the Civil Rights Movement, now I feel it”
As a post note, I never thought I could find the poem I had read so many years ago but I decided to google “poem, palms of my hand and soles of my feet” and with those words alone, in seconds, I found it. I got the name of the poem wrong and even the exact line about the palms and souls but that power of the words has not dimmed a bit. Read the full poem here.