Fifty years ago, black youngsters’ struggles to attend Little Rock’s Central High School during the 1957-1958 school year propelled the civil rights movement forward in the United States. (See “After Facing Mobs 50 Years Ago, Nine Go Home to Honors.”) The Little Rock Nine’s story is really nine stories.
When Gloria Ray Karlmark thinks back to 50 years ago, she focuses on her parents. Older, strict and well educated -- both graduated from Tuskegee University in Alabama -- they brought up Karlmark, their fourth child, discussing mature topics.
As the school year began and news of segregationist mobs forming reached their household, Karlmark’s parents spoke to her about the difficulties she faced if she remained committed to attending Central High School.
She thought hard, but she could not back down. “It would put me in doubt about my very existence,” she said. “Some things are worth dying for. I stopped being me. I became what was a very important principle, every day in school.” Karlmark even reasoned that, because her parents paid taxes, she deserved the same education as other Americans.
Because of harassment by white peers during the 1957-1958 school year, “we don’t have happy memories of high school,” Karlmark said. “In the years that have passed, we have not gotten happy flashbacks.” One of the men, she said, refers to himself in the third person when talking about his time at Central.
But the Little Rock Nine have a strong, joyful relationship. While talking to USINFO at a hotel in Little Rock in May, where several of the Little Rock Nine had gathered because the U.S. Mint was unveiling a commemorative coin in their honor, Karlmark was interrupted by the arrival of Ernest Green, another of the Little Rock Nine. They talked about who already had arrived and who was coming. “The first thing we do is check, when we get together, ‘how many of us are here?’” Karlmark explained. It is a habit from that year when they went into a school with 2,000 white kids, many hostile, and were separated by different class schedules. “At the beginning of the day, we were nine. At the end of the day, we would check to see that we were still nine,” she said.
In addition to having a coin depicting their struggle, these nine have been honored by the U.S. Postal Service, which put their images on a postage stamp in 2005; by the state government, which erected statues of them on state Capitol grounds; and by the U.S. Congress, which awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal.
Contemplating these honors and the attention that will be bestowed on her at the 50th anniversary celebration September 24-25, Karlmark said, “It is humbling. It is an honor to God. I regret my parents are not here.”
While proud of her role, Karlmark sees the Little Rock story as a testament to the U.S. Constitution. “You can’t find another country with a better constitution,” she said. “The president came down to ensure our basic rights to go to school, to help little kids.”
In 1958, when Little Rock high schools were closed to avoid integration, Karlmark moved to Missouri and, ironically, finished school there at a newly integrated school that also was called Central High School. She then earned a college degree in chemistry and mathematics. She has worked as a teacher, mathematician, computer analyst and writer. Today, she lives in the Netherlands.
See Black History Month.