Columns » Max Brantley

Crisis at 60

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The city of Little Rock, the school district and the National Park Service last week announced extensive plans for events in September to mark the 60th anniversary of the Central High desegregation crisis.

The use of federal troops to enforce a desegregation order was a landmark in the struggle for civil rights. Music, art, lectures and a reunion of the eight surviving members of the Little Rock Nine, who entered Central with protection by federal troops, are scheduled. The city, expecting visitors, has embarked on a branding campaign. The theme: "Reflections on Progress."

There's progress to be found, no doubt, and I trust the campaign will emphasize them. Leave it to me to look on the darker side. Topics for visiting reporters 60 years later: • Federal case law now finds dis-favor with devising means to achieve racial balance, or even token integration, in one-race schools. • The school district where federal troops escorted a handful of black students into a single high school is now overwhelmingly black. • The Little Rock City Board essentially segregated the city years ago with a decision to allow westward city expansion to occur outside the Little Rock School District. • The school district no longer has an elected school board. Its majority-black board was abolished by the state of Arkansas for academic shortcomings in several mostly black schools. • The state Board of Education has helped further segregate the school district with proliferating charter schools. • A white member of the Board of Education angrily told a patron asking for return of local control that he was sick of hearing about the Little Rock School District. • The current City Board includes white members who favored the school district takeover and who voted against a resolution urging a return of local control. • The neighboring Pulaski County School District just fired a superintendent and lawyer for mentioning the possibility of a boundary change that would combine majority white western Little Rock with the majority black Little Rock School District.  • Suburban cities have outstripped Little Rock in growth thanks to people fleeing Little Rock and what are perceived as substandard schools. The schools, coincidentally, are heavily populated by impoverished black children. The decaying center city and its high crime rate fuel suburban growth, too. State highway officials meanwhile lobby for hundreds of millions in freeway construction to get the suburbanites out of town even faster after work in Little Rock. • A majority of Little Rock police officers, particularly white officers, don't live in Little Rock. Many say they find the schools unsuitable and the city unsafe. • The City Board is elected only partially from wards, so that the white business community can control the balance of power through three at-large seats. These interests led the movement to oust the school board. • Central High, which my kids attended, itself remains a beacon of academic achievements, but its critics insist that white students are favored in advanced placement classes while black students are steered elsewhere.  The Walton-financed charter school lobby is pushing hard to upend an assignment system that helped preserve a desegregated Central.

I could go on. But that should be enough to encourage conversation. Disagree with my spin, by all means. But we're wasting time on the 60th if the observance doesn't include some sober thought on what 1957 has wrought.

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