Carl Bradley is a railroad man who spent most of his career in Roseville. Back in the Sacramento area recently, he told me a story about his youth in Arkansas in the 1950s, an experience that made him a witness to history.
Bradley is white. At 16, he lied about his age to join the National Guard in Pine Bluff, Ark. He’d been working since age 10, to help his family of eight. His town was segregated, the kind of town where white kids threw rocks at the black kids. Bradley didn’t, but neither did he have black friends.
On Sept. 3, 1957, at 9 p.m., his mother answered the phone. Bradley was ordered to report to active duty by 11 p.m. By midnight, high schoolers who had never received basic training left Pine Bluff in a convoy driving north about 45 miles and pulled into a football stadium at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.
It was the first day of school. The first day of integration. The governor of Arkansas ordered 100 National Guardsmen to protect white children from black children who wanted access to an education. At a nearby base, Bradley received riot training with 3-foot-long clubs.
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“No rifles,” he said, “just taught to disable and/or hurt people.” He was teargassed to learn not to panic. Nine black students arrived every day, and every day they were kept out.
Bradley’s unit was on the perimeter of the crowd as whites screamed and waved signs that said, “Race mixing is communism.” Bradley’s unit was told to “expect anything at any time.”
The students were chosen and prepared by the NAACP “to make an example out of a place,” Bradley said. “It was overwhelming, and more confusing than anything. I started looking at those kids and wondering how I would feel. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.”
Over the next 19 days, confrontation and rioting continued. On Sept. 24, President Dwight D. Eisenhower nationalized Bradley’s unit into the 101st Airborne of the U.S. Army, and charged them with protecting those nine black students from hundreds of raging white, distorted, spitting faces. Troops escorted the nine students inside.
“Why force black kids into this kind of trauma just to make a point?” Bradley remembers wondering. He was assigned to a hallway where each soldier stood with a red and white riot club, forbidden to speak to students. The nine newcomers were escorted everywhere but the restrooms. He wondered what they had to endure in those restrooms. “How racist and vulgar people can get,” he said. “It made me grow up pretty quick.”
Bradley was at Central High every day for three months until he was ordered to return to his own high school. The 101st Airborne was there for the entire school year. Little Rock schools weren’t completely integrated until 1972.
But that stint in the front lines of the Civil Rights movement shaped Bradley’s views, and his career years later when he began to rise as a manager within the ranks at Union Pacific. In 1976, he was transferred to Roseville, to the iconic western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, where he oversaw the rebuilding of the largest railyard in the nation. He managed 3,500 people, architects to brakemen, Bakersfield to Klamath Falls.
He interviewed workers on the tracks and in the trains, he said, hiring men, women, veterans, white and non-white people on an equal basis, and listened for what each had to contribute. Central High, he said, had taught him that “people are people,” and that opportunity is an antidote to racism, one person at a time.
I grew up in Sacramento in the same era. My schools were integrated. Bigotry was subtler.
In middle-class Curtis Park, I had two black friends. Their families had to find white friends to buy their homes for them, my mother later told me. By sixth grade, some of us played spin-the-bottle, and the cuter of the two played too. I knew our skin was different; I never cared. By the end of sixth grade, though, he wouldn’t play and wouldn’t say why.
My dad was Jewish; my mother, who wasn’t, said that because of her Nordic looks, and because few of her acquaintances in Sacramento recognized her last name as Jewish, people often revealed themselves as anti-Semitic.
I didn’t know what bigotry was until a kid pulled a chair out from underneath me in junior high school. Carl Bradley knew.