It was 1957. I was ten years old, and had been hustled off to a Baptist military school in San Marcos, Texas. In retrospect, I was fortunate: fortunate not to be sixteen years old, African-American, and trying to enter Central High School, five hundred miles northeast of San Marcos, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In 1957, I was completely oblivious to the torment and abuse being suffered by nine young African-American kids who were the fragile leading edge of de-segregation in the Arkansas of fifty-eight years ago. The effect of their desire for a decent education was felt not just in Little Rock, but across the South.
Few people of any age reading this need me to tell them about the civil rights struggles that came to a forceful point in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I grew up in the South. Not the Deep South of Mississippi and Alabama, but there were plenty of “Colored Only” drinking fountains and toilets and rooms in the Dallas of my youth. And those were just the obvious, comparatively benign signs of racism and apartheid that governed the lives of Black people in Dallas and elsewhere in this country.
The events of that story are as well known as are its settings. In many ways, the South has not been completely forgiven for the prominent part it played in American apartheid. There are numerous reasons for that.
The number of Southerners who abhor racism and actually do love their neighbors, regardless of background or race, has grown enormously over the decades, but there are still plenty of good old boys (and girls) whose overwrought words and angry faces perpetuate the stereotypical, reactionary image of intolerance associated with the American South.
It is against this long and sad and painful history that I read a new kind of story out of Arkansas in yesterday’s newspaper.
The City Board of Little Rock voted, seven to two, to approve an ordinance banning discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in both hiring and city services, including services offered by non-governmental vendors. The approval of Little Rock’s anti-discrimination ordinance comes soon after the legislature of Arkansas approved a law that prohibited local ordinances from banning discrimination on any basis not recognized by the state.
As it happens, Arkansas is one of twenty-nine states – twenty-nine – that do not prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation; or, as I like to put it, based upon who you choose to love.
What this all means is that the city of Little Rock is standing up against a law passed by the legislature of its state.
Kathy Webb, a Little Rock City Director, is quoted as saying, “I think we’re sending a message that we’re a welcoming community, that we’re diverse, that we realize that’s good for business, that we value all of our citizens.” Ms. Webb was the first openly gay member of the Arkansas legislature, and is presumably the first gay City Director of the city that in 1957 bent over backwards to keep nine young African American teenagers from attending a high school that was without a doubt better than the one to which they would have been otherwise relegated.
The usual suspects are opposed to Little Rock’s new ordinance. If I were a truly gentlemanly fellow, I would wish those opponents good luck. I guess I’m not all that gentlemanly, because I have no intention of doing any such thing.
One thing I will say though. If those who oppose these anti-discrimination laws insist on continuing to swim against the tide of history and progress, I humbly suggest they learn how to swim, or be prepared to drown.