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A different military escort for the Little Rock 9

By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 14, 2016

The six women selected to sponsor the submarine Arkansas will find themselves surrounded by the Navy when they visit Newport News Shipbuilding as guests of honor.

That will be quite a turnaround from the first time they stood among members of the U.S. military.

The Arkansas' sponsors are the women of the Little Rock Nine. As teenagers in 1957, they stepped forward to integrate Central High School in Little Rock. The atmosphere was so hostile that President Dwight Eisenhower mobilized members of the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into school.

The images of those children gazing straight ahead, clutching their books, protected from a shouting mob by armed GIs, are among the most iconic of the civil rights movement.

The women are not due in Newport News for some time. Construction on the nuclear-powered attack submarine will begin in 2018, and the boat is scheduled to join the fleet in 2023. No dates have been set for its keel-laying and christening, ceremonies that mark construction milestones where sponsors play a formal role.

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Navy tradition dictates that ship sponsors are women. So the role falls to the six females of the Little Rock Nine, not the two surviving males. Melba Patillo Beals joked that the women have done a bit of bragging about this. But they're taking the role quite seriously.

And the symbolism is not lost on her.

"I love a man in uniform," she said. "Because the first sign of safety I experienced on this planet was the men in uniform of the 101st Airborne."

Beals married a police officer. Her brother spent his career in law enforcement, first as a policeman and later as a U.S. marshal. So even though she didn't know a whole lot about Virginia-class submarines, the honor has hit home.

"Yes sir, I am proud and honored to be chosen for this," she said. "If you've got a uniform on, it means you have volunteered to risk life and limb to accomplish something."

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who named the sponsors, said he always looks for people who contribute to the community in some way. Needing an example from the state of Arkansas, he didn't have to think very hard.

"The Little Rock Nine just jumped out," he said in a telephone interview. "Here were six women, three men, who as adolescents integrated Little Rock's Central High School. They had to be taken through mobs of jeering, yelling people."

That courage and fortitude, he said, "are the examples you want to see in an American -- and in a ship's sponsor."

Mabus broke the news to the group in a conference call. The first one to get a heads up was Carlotta LaNier, president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation.

The Navy didn't want to spoil the surprise, but she was understandably curious why the Navy's top civilian wanted an audience.

"His aide had to tell me something," she said.

Mabus, the governor of Mississippi from 1988 to 1992, has served as secretary of the Navy since 2009. The first ship he named honored Medgar Evers, the prominent civil rights activist from Mississippi who was shot in the back and killed in 1963.

The USNS Medgar Evers is a cargo ship -- cargo ships are named for pioneers. (The first-in-class ship is the USNS Lewis and Clark.)

Mabus has also named a new class of replenishment ships in honor of civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Other ships in that class, according to a story from U.S. Naval Institute, will be named for Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose court ruled to desegregate schools, women's rights activist Lucy Stone, former presidential candidate and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth.

Another ship in the Lewis class is being named for the late Harvey Milk, a San Francisco politician and hero of the gay rights movement who was murdered in 1978.

With the Arkansas, Mabus said he sees a story of hope.

"Remembering that history, but breaking those chains of racism that bound us all, is important," Mabus said. "It's important for the armed forces of the United States. It's important for people around the world who see the USS Arkansas. A lot of times, that's the only contact they will have with America, is through a naval ship like this."

The history of Little Rock in September 1957 is one of tumult.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that public school segregation was unconstitutional. It was the landmark case of Brown versus Board of Education, which consolidated five lawsuits, including one from Prince Edward County, Virginia.

The ruling was so controversial that the Supreme Court issued a second decision, known as Brown II, directing school integration "with all deliberate speed."

Gradually, the Little Rock school board adopted a plan, and that brought the Little Rock Nine into the spotlight. When they arrived for the first day of school on Sept. 4, 1957, the Arkansas National Guard turned them away at the direction of Gov. Orval Faubus.

Eisenhower attempted to persuade Faubus to allow the students to enter. On Sept. 23, the Little Rock police escorted the nine into the school amid 1,000 angry protesters. As riots ensued, the students were removed.

The next day, Eisenhower sent in 1,200 members of the 101st Airborne and placed them in charge of 10,000 National Guardsmen. Escorted by armed troops, the Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of classes on Sept. 25.

The students faced harassment and some violence throughout the year.The troops stayed for the duration.

One year later, Faubus ordered the schools closed for the entire year. Eight members of the Little Rock Nine completed their high school education at other schools or through correspondence courses. One member, Ernest Green, had graduated from Central High that first year.

The members of the Little Rock Nine went on to successful careers. Beals became a journalist and reported for National Public Radio and NBC news. LaNier is a successful real estate broker and president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation. The group has had numerous honors bestowed upon them, including the Congressional Gold Medal.

Now, they will have a chance to bring their story forward to a younger generation that is grappling with issues of racial justice in 2016.

"I really do believe this is another avenue to educate, especially our young people, who are not aware why they are sitting in a classroom being educated with other kids who don't look like them," LaNier said. "And to understand how that became a part of the American experience. I think this is a good way."

Beals married a white police officer. She left Arkansas to be raised by a white family in California. She grew up black in Little Rock and was frightened of white people. Although she and her husband are now divorced, she has the experience of being a police officer's wife, and to this day cries when an officer is killed in the line of duty.

"I pray for the men and women who defend us," she said. "I don't think we honor them enough. We sit home with our legs crossed. I kind of know what it means to be in battle, because in a way, that's how I felt when we were at Central High School."

Information from History.com, the Virginia Historical Society and the Little Rock 9 Foundation was used in this article.

(c) 2016 the Daily Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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