LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–In 1957, the country watched as nine black teenagers, accompanied by armed federal troops deployed by President Dwight Eisenhower, crossed a historic racial barrier to attend Little Rock Central High School.
The Army troops were ordered to protect the students from physical harm. But guns couldn’t shelter the youths from heckling, taunting and racial epithets.
Almost 40 years later, however, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” Elizabeth Eckford, still vividly recalls two classmates who extended a Christlike attitude amid the hatred she endured during her senior year.
“There were two people in my speech class who treated me like an ordinary person, who were always friendly and cordial to me,” Eckford told National Public Radio last year. “This was unique because, of the people who were not actively harassing us, the rest of them ignored us. Ken Reinhardt and Ann Williams in that class are very memorable to me, very meaningful to me.”
Reinhardt is now a banking executive in Louisville, Ky., a longtime member of St. Matthews Baptist Church and a trustee of Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children.
Reinhardt’s first recollection of his senior year was looking out a third-floor window as a mob jeered the black students. A boy beside him turned away from the window, voicing disgust that blacks were entering Little Rock Central.
Reinhardt decided to speak to the students whenever he saw them. One day he talked to Jefferson Thomas, a shy black student who was eating alone in the cafeteria. The next day, Reinhardt was shoved to the ground by an angry white student who yelled a racial slur at him. On the last day of school, one white student in gym class punched Reinhardt in the face. No teacher or student came to Reinhardt’s defense.
The treatment was the same the blacks faced daily from many of school’s 1,500 students, Reinhardt reminded in an interview.
“The National Guardsmen followed the black students every day. But every day they were body-slammed into the lockers. The guardsmen wouldn’t do anything.”
Reinhardt said the reason he responded as he did was because he was raised in a Christian home.
“I didn’t grow up in a home with prejudice,” Reinhardt said, his voice cracking. “I never heard racial epithets or anything like that in my home. It was not anything we discussed. The value of people was a given.”
He quoted Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
“I couldn’t have given you that Scripture at that time, but I knew that prejudice was wrong,” Reinhardt recounted. “I knew that God created all of us.”
His father, Kendall Reinhardt, who still lives in Little Rock, said he would often get calls from angry whites calling him names and saying, “I guess you’re proud of your son.”
The elder Reinhardt would respond, “Yes, I am,” and hang up.
The younger Reinhardt said his relationship with Eckford in high school “has been hard for me to express.”
“We were not friends, really,” he said. “We didn’t visit after school. I couldn’t tell you much about our conversations. I just visited with her. I know now that it meant a great deal to her.”
They were reunited last year when students from Uniontown High School in Kansas interviewed them for a project for National History Day, an annual event sponsored by the University of Maryland.
The 57-year-old Reinhardt and his wife returned to Little Rock last summer to visit with Eckford and had a “wonderful time,” he said.
They also attended the University of Maryland’s National History Day activities together.
“We spent three and a half glorious days with Elizabeth,” Reinhardt said, again fighting tears as he recalls the Maryland ceremonies. “The people from Kansas treated us like royalty.”
Eckford still lives in Little Rock. She could not be reached for an interview. One acquaintance said she prefers to stay out of the limelight and doesn’t like to discuss what she went through 40 years ago.
She still has emotional scars from her senior year in high school, Reinhardt said, explaining she suffers from post-traumatic disorder, a condition common to soldiers who have gone through combat.
Ironically, Reinhardt faced a similar situation in the 1970s in Louisville. The school district decided to bus some white children to an inner-city school to create a more even racial balance. Reinhardt’s fifth-grade daughter was one of the children selected to be bussed.
“We had a lot of discussion over whether we should fight it,” Reinhardt said. “But we decided it was best to let it happen.
“It was a difficult school environment for everybody. But (the white students) were not ostracized. It was not the kind of situation,” he said, like Little Rock Central in 1957.