Witness to a "Crisis:" 1950s Black Youth Activism That Propels Many Today

One generation to the next, in city after city, the justice road is being built by each of us

Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. -Langston Hughes

As we approach the anniversary of the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, on May 17th, the story of struggle and progress in Little Rock reminds us of the roots of Black youth activism in American racial history.

How do we know if the American civil rights movement of the twentieth century has had a measurable impact on our sociopolitical lives, today? You could just turn on your television because we've discovered that the protest actions of a brave few Black youth can determine the political and social attitudes and actions of countless others--even decades later.

In Little Rock Crisis: What Desegregation Politics Says About Us, we frame the story of the Little Rock 1957 desegregation crisis through the lens of memory. Over time, those memories - individual and collective - have motivated Little Rockians for social and political action and engagement.

A Native American saying states, "It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story." Accounts of the 1957 desegregation crisis in Little Rock have taken many voices--all telling a unique story about experience with the crisis. Very few of the numerous accounts of the crisis examine it as a living incident.

For many, that road toward a better democracy began in Little Rock, where they were introduced to nine teenagers who changed the world. But the "crisis" in Little Rock affected many more Blacks than the Nine - both now and then.

It was between 1956 and 1958 that dozens of Black teenagers in Little Rock sought to integrate the capital city's largest high school, Central High School. After several attempts over two years, with varying Black teenagers (and brave parents), nine courageous teenagers met on a September morning in 1957 to try justice again. On first attempt, local and state sanctioned mobs, assisted by the Arkansas National Guard were allowed to prevent the Black teens from going to school.

When the pinnacle of success can be one block over, yet inaccessible to Black you, you are wrought with agony. When the epicenter of "opportunity," denies you because of Black you, you may lose part of you.

Federal law mattered not. Little Rock, like most "desegregation" cities in the south, was not interested in equality for Black youth.

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike? -Langston Hughes

Little Rock, Arkansas, is also the birth home of Mom. Mom was a teenager in 1957, and one year younger than the youngest of the Nine. Her oldest sister was in the same class as Ernest Green, the first African American to graduate from Central High School. My grandmother taught many of the Nine in Sunday School or Choir at Bethel AME Church in Little Rock.

But, Mom could not take part, having been strongly denied by her father, the opportunity to integrate Central:

"As a teenager, however, I was angry with my father's response and his decision to allow providing for his family to take precedence over activism for civil rights. He said "No" so quickly, so forcefully! ... I couldn't have comprehended any logical or illogical explanation about the adult complexities of being dependent for one's livelihood on the whims of a white employer."

Though living Black in America remains a painful experience for many Black youth today, as it did then, there are positive residuals from social movement "crisis." Black Little Rockians, from the Silent Generation to Generation Z, attribute their current engagement in political affairs to community memory of "crisis." The result? Their politics have taken shape. They are more engaged.

Last year, research at Pew indicates that political engagement can take on many different forms, and that on every measure of engagement, "political participation is strongly related to ideology and partisan antipathy."

But, political participation is also strongly linked to one's motivation or impetus for engagement, In The Little Rock Crisis: What Desegregation Politics Says About Us, it is clear that one's introduction to politics through the lens of a social (in)justice movement, such as the Little Rock "crisis," is the reason many cite for why they 1) initially got involved in politics and 2) why they remained involved throughout their lives.


After the Nine, came the Greensboro Four and the Nashville Sit-Ins (of which Mom was also a participant as a student at Fisk University). Then came Freedom Rides, SNCC, the Black Panthers and so many other opportunities for young activists to compel this nation to do what is right.

And, yet today, the criminal injustice systems fought against in the 1960s remain strong in Baltimore, Ferguson, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Cleveland and far too many other communities, and is met with the same injustice in many of our nation's urban schools, where Black youth are left behind day after day. Such is the cycle of structural racism - alive today, alive in Little Rock in 1957.

Over the last few years we've seen the spirit of Little Rock play out across the country as millions of Black youth engage in activism against inequity. Though the cause differs, the quest for universal freedom is the same.

When Black you is made thug you by Black leaders,
you're a stranger in your own house.

Today's Little Rock can be found in Ferguson, Baltimore and countless other locales where injustice reigned, lives were lost, and souls changed forever. And, the secret's out! - We're all better citizens for having been witness to a crisis.

Those who live(d) in the shadow of crisis believe they have been significantly changed--questioning if what they went through is a crisis at all. We think it is so much more. Each burst of Black youth sociopolitical activism is an American breakthrough that impacts each of us across generations; a re-birth of democracy in action.

Ravi K. Perry, received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Brown University in 2009. He is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Mississippi State University, President of the National Association for Ethnic Studies and the Affiliate Equity Officer at the ACLU of Mississippi. You can follow him on Twitter: @raviperry

D. LaRouth (Smith) Perry received her Ph.D. in American Culture from Bowling Green State University in 1998. She is a Little Rock native and is an Independent Scholar. She resides in Tampa, FL.