Walk with Me

Meet the Hero: Kendall Reinhardt

It’s never easy standing up to your peers, even if it’s the right thing to do. No one likes being unpopular. But we all have a choice: walk in line or forge our own path; stand by or stand up. Kendall Reinhardt chose to stand up for his beliefs, and decades later, his story helped a community in Virginia heal wounds that still ran deep.

Ken could have been just another high school senior at that Arkansas school. He could have kept his head down, blended in and skated by unscathed. But it was 1957, the height of America’s Civil Rights movement, and nine African American students had just enrolled in his all-white southern school. The students would become known as the Little Rock Nine and the high school would create a rift in national consciousness. Still, Ken could have simply been another unmemorable guy on the wrong side of history.

Challenges to Integration

Elizabeth Eckford after being denied entrance to Little Rock Central High School on September 4, 1957. Photo by Will Counts; courtesy of the Indiana University Archive.

Three years prior, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision, declaring segregation in schools unconstitutional. Yet in September 1957, when those nine African American students arrived at Little Rock Central High School for their first day of school, then Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to support a mob of segregationists as they attempted to block the students from entering. The image of soldiers barring students from education served to further polarize a nation running high on racial tension.

Woodrow Wilson Mann, the mayor of Little Rock, appealed to President Eisenhower for support, and the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army was deployed to the school. The Little Rock Nine were finally admitted to Little Rock Central High under the protection of the U.S. Army at the end of September, each student assigned a guard for safety.

Despite making it through the front door, the Little Rock Nine were never welcome. They suffered relentless physical and verbal abuse from many of their white peers. At the end of the school year, Governor Faubus succeeded in passing a bill to close all four public schools in Little Rock, preventing both black and white students from attending, and urged the population to vote against integration. That 1957-8 school year became known as the “Lost Year.”

A Legacy of Kindness
Ken Reinhardt and Ann Williams.

Ken Reinhardt and Ann Williams.

Decades later, in 1996, three Kansas students in Norm Conard’s history class interviewed one of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford. She named two white classmates who had befriended her during her year at Little Rock Central High School: Kendall Reinhardt and Ann Williams. All three of them had attended Mrs. McGalin’s speech class, which the students called a “safe haven” for its atmosphere of tolerance and understanding.

Elizabeth had not seen either Ken or Ann since 1958, but she could still vividly remember the impact their lone courage had in a wide sea of hatred. Ken in particular faced bullies, threats and acts of hatred because of his kindness towards Elizabeth and other members of the Little Rock Nine. His father even received vile, threatening phone calls from people degrading Ken for his empathy. Yet Ken never backed down in the face of opposition or wavered in his convictions.

The Kansas students reunited Ken and Elizabeth, who began traveling around the country together spreading messages of respect and understanding. In the meantime, a theater teacher and her students in Prince George, Virginia decided to tell Ken’s story to create change in their own community.

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