Gospel singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples headlined a benefit concert at Robinson Center Music Hall this Saturday, performing for members of the Little Rock Nine.
The concert was part of Reflections of Progress, a four-day commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Central High’s integration. Proceeds of the concert will go to the Little Rock Nine Foundation, a nonprofit that provides, “direct financial support and a mentorship program for students to help them reach their educational goals,” according to the foundation’s website.
Staples is known for her work as a member of The Staple Singers and as a solo artist. Songs like “Freedom Highway” and “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” expressed solidarity with the civil rights movement, the latter being written in direct response to the crisis at Central High.
“We are honored to be here to honor the Little Rock Nine,” Staples told her audience.
Staples was a high school senior when the Little Rock Nine began at Central High, and remembers “being so proud to see these young black people walking with their books and not needing to turn their heads.”
Ken Wade, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence and one of the concert’s organizers, said that the music of Mavis Staples and The Staple Singers was an integral part of what occurred at Central High 60 years ago.
“The songs that they sung were encouraging music for people and students going through integration during that period,” Wade said.
Staples’ performance had two opening acts. The first was an interfaith community choir assembled specially for Reflections of Progress. The choir also performed at the Interfaith Service on Sunday night. Local band The Rodney Block Collective followed up, playing songs such as Maze’s “We Are One” and Stevie Wonder’s “These Three Words.”
Between acts, the center showed short films with footage from the original crisis as well as interviews on Central High’s past and its relation to the present.
One of the people interviewed was Sybil Hampton, the former president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and a 1962 Central graduate. Another was Crystal Mercer, the daughter of Arkansan civil rights activist Christopher C. Mercer Jr. She said that the story of Central High inspired her work, which includes workshops and seminars about the Central High integration. Mercer also portrayed Minnijean Brown-Trickey in the play, “One Ninth.”
To Mercer, the courage of the Little Rock Nine is a “blueprint and a model for everyone to follow,” particularly people of color.
“I just thank the Little Rock Nine for never giving up,” Mercer said, “because they are the reason why the movement can continue to move.”
Organizations including Little Rock’s municipal government, the Little Rock School District and the National Park Service began planning for Reflections of Progress over a year ago.
Reflections of Progress finished Sept. 25, with the eight surviving members of the Little Rock Nine and former President Clinton speaking at the Commemoration Ceremony at Central High. Related community events celebrating Central’s integration will continue until May 2018.