In a little more than a year, all eyes will be on Little Rock. Again.
It’s hard to know yet whether the gaze will be gentle or glaring, but national, even international, attention will undoubtedly turn this way as the city commemorates the 1957 school crisis.
Officially, the city will celebrate on Sept. 25, 2007, 50 years after Central High School admitted nine black students, escorted by federal troops.
The crisis began in earnest Sept. 4, 1957, when Arkansas National Guard troops, acting at Gov. Orval E. Faubus’ direction, prevented the Little Rock Nine, as they became known, from entering the school.
When the Little Rock Nine return next year to the steps of Central High, the scene will likely resemble a snapshot from 1997, when President Bill Clinton escorted the nine former students into the halls where they had been shunned decades earlier. It is hoped that another president, George W. Bush, will be on hand.
In 2007, the commemoration will go beyond the steps of Central High to a series of city-sponsored events, including forums about the educational and legal ramifications of the desegregation crisis. Inevitably, the city will confront lingering racial divisions, not to mention hard feelings nursed for a half-century by many who were players in the 1957 drama.
The 2007 observation is expected to be a broad community event. WorldFest is to be expanded. The Emancipation Proclamation will be displayed at the Clinton Library. The Arkansas Repertory Theater will debut a play based on personal accounts of the crisis. A documentary film is in the works. Major magazine pieces are being developed even now. A slew of other symposiums, performances and exhibits will unfold.
During the week of the 50th anniversary, the Little Rock Nine Foundation is planning its own gala as a fund-raiser for scholarships it plans to give to minority students. The events also tie in with the National Parks Service’s planned opening of an expanded Central High School visitors center. It is being built across from the current facility, a remodeled gas station, with about six times the current exhibit space.
City leaders say they are pleased with the way plans are unfolding. Members of a city-appointed commission have been steadily hashing out logistics. The city Advertising and Promotion Commission is getting on board with plans to re-launch the Arkansas Globecoming website, which promoted the Clinton Library opening two years ago. And fundr aising for the city-sponsored events is about to begin. Preliminary budgets for some events total more than $400,000.
Beyond parking and the setup of thousands of folding chairs are weightier questions. In these, some differences of opinion have already arisen.
What have we learned?
Some questions then: Is this 50th anniversary a celebration, or is it a cause for somber reflection? Is it a chance to learn from past accomplishments of brave civil rights pioneers, or is it an opportunity for reconciliation with the segregationists who shunned them? Most of all, have we learned anything from those days?
Some members of the city’s event planning team — the Central High Integration 50th Anniversary Commission — are asking, and answering, these questions.
Planner Annie Abrams, a Central High parent and grandparent, herself a graduate of Dunbar High School, once the state’s leading school for black students, and witness to the events of 1957, is concerned about what the answers will be.
“What are we going to be able to market as the proud product [of Central High’s desegregation] … as a school district? As a city? As a state?” she said in a recent interview. “I don’t think we quite have an answer to that.”
Some of the answers are obvious and unflattering. In 2006, local school districts are still wading through desegregation litigation that began 50 years ago. Statewide, school funding is a contentious quagmire that still turns in part on disparate opportunity and achievement for whites and blacks. The offspring of the racially charged education debate permeates all of society — from access to housing and jobs to crime and voting rights. It rarely escapes attention that, in a year with a near-record homicide rate, the black community has suffered disproportionately.
“I don’t think this country has ever addressed the real institutionalized racism in its policies and programs,” said Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine. He now lives in California.
These issues are bigger than Little Rock, but the famous image here remains an indelible brand for all of them — a state and white political establishment that would stop at nothing, even the federal Constitution, to prevent black students from entering the state’s finest high school.
“I had hoped by now that we wouldn’t be discussing the sort of things we are discussing,” said Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of two Little Rock Nine representatives on the city’s Anniversary Commission. She would like to see conversations about desegregation expand to include issues beyond education.
“The country has moved way beyond where it was in 1957 when the crisis occurred,” said Theodore M. Shaw, director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “[But] if we talk specifically about school desegregation, I think the picture is less rosy.”
National and local civil rights leaders point to the rise of resegregation in many school districts across the country.
A 2002 Harvard Civil Rights Project study of 239 school districts with total enrollment above 25,000 found that “since 1986, in almost every district examined, black and Latino students have become more racially segregated from whites in their schools. The literature suggests that minority schools are highly correlated with high-poverty schools and these schools are also associated with low parental involvement, lack of resources, less experienced and credentialed teachers, and higher teacher turnover — all of which combine to exacerbate educational inequality for minority students.”
Of all the schools studied, those in the South actually showed the least resegregation of black and white students, according to the study. Researchers asserted that lingering court-ordered desegregation plans, many of which are still in place in the South, were the likely reason for this trend.
Today, Central High School is a “resilient” success story, compared to other schools across the country where resegregation is occurring, according to Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard.
Along with its litany of academic and athletic achievements, Central boasts a nearly even population of black and white students [47 and 46 percent, respectively, last year, and more than 6 percent Asians, Latinos and “other”].
But an equal mix of races does not necessarily mean an equal distribution of achievement, Orfield cautions. In Arkansas and across the country, black and Latino students routinely enter high school with lower test scores than their white counterparts, leaving administrators and educators with the challenge of catch-up.
“It’s not a perfect world, neither is this a perfect school,” said Nancy Rousseau, Central High’s principal and co-chair of the city’s Anniversary Commission. “We work every day to make it better. … We have a whole lot of interventions here at Central to promote student success.”
Perhaps one small example of unequal achievement levels can be found in the faces of the 16 Central students who were national merit semi-finalists last year. Not one of the finalists from the school was black, according to Rousseau. There are lingering feelings in the community, too, that within Central’s walls are “two schools” — one for high-achieving college-bound students, mostly white, and a less productive school for everyone else, mostly black. School leaders naturally dispute this, but it’s yet another of the themes of continued friction almost certain to resurface at the 50th anniversary observance.
As 2007 approaches and another examination of the past leads to an evaluation of current education systems, many are pleased to see the discussion continue.
“Even though it may take such an anniversary to stimulate dialogue, at least people are talking,” Roberts said.
Diverse, and divergent, views
Some in Little Rock — both on and off the city-appointed commission — have said that so far, people aren’t talking enough when it comes to planning events that commemorate and build upon the past.
With a 23-person commission as diverse as the city itself, conflicts have emerged since its creation in 2004. At least one vocal onlooker isn’t satisfied with the group’s progress.
“I think they’ve missed a wonderful opportunity to do some great things that Little Rock has needed for a long time,” said Leta Anthony, a past chairwoman and current member of the city Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission. She said she is dissatisfied with the planning team’s efforts to involve Little Rock residents in their work and to bring them to the table for discussions of reconciliation — something she had hoped would be scheduled during the months leading up to September 2007.
“There’s a lot of healing that still needs to be done in Little Rock,” Anthony said. “The ball, to me, has been dropped by the commission.”
Virgil Miller, a Little Rock banker and co-chairman of the Anniversary Commission, has met with Anthony, but says he has struggled to get specific suggestions from her and others who have criticized the commission.
“Tell me what you want to see done,” Miller said in an interview. “Not this nebulous stuff. What, specifically, do you want to see done? I cannot seem to get the specifics.”
The commission is planning three main events for thousands of guests, but even with three years of lead time, Miller recognizes he will not satisfy everyone.
“I have been around long enough, and I’m old enough and I’ve been a part of enough of these events to know that … there will be segments of the public that will be disappointed in whatever we do,” Miller said. “It’s easier to throw a brick at something than to lay a brick. I just caution our commission members that we’ll have a lot of bricks thrown at us.”
Miller and others on the commission speak often of how they have invited community groups, cultural institutions and other organizations to coordinate their own events around the city-sponsored anniversary agenda. Time at the beginning of each committee meeting is set aside for these groups to speak.
To move forward with its own planning, the commission eventually had to draw a line to say what events they had the resources to sponsor and leave other groups to plan the rest.
“The commission has made some excellent decisions,” said Dr. Johanna Miller Lewis, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock history professor and commission member who worked to launch the Central High Museum and helped plan anniversary events in 1997. “The best decision [the Anniversary Commission] made was to say, ‘We can’t do everything. We’re going to limit ourselves to what we can do well.’ ”
But that decision didn’t satisfy others on the committee, particularly Arkansas’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commission Executive Director Tracy Steele and Dale Charles of the Arkansas NAACP, both of whom have spoken about a need for an event that will attract a black audience.
“An event needs to be planned [where] regular citizens would have an opportunity to come and be accepted,” Charles said in a recent interview. “A lot of people may or may not feel welcome at certain venues. … A lot of people don’t feel welcome at Central High School.”
Charles stopped short of saying the event should cater strictly to black audiences, but said he thinks the audience he has in mind would feel more comfortable at Philander Smith College than at the University of Arkansas School of Law, which will be sponsoring some of the scheduled events.
For Minnijean Brown Trickey, the other Little Rock Nine representative on the city’s commission, the idea of a city-sponsored event that caters to one group runs counter to the concept of desegregation and counter to what she and her black classmates stood for nearly 50 years ago.
“Everything’s open. Everything’s free. … Our audience is everybody,” she said in an interview. “This is not black history. This is American history.”
Moreover, many on the commission stressed, all of the city-backed events will be inclusive. For security reasons related to the president’s expected attendance, the main anniversary program will require an invitation, Miller said. But those without tickets will likely be able to view broadcasts of the event on Jumbotrons the commission hopes to set up near Central High.
“Sometimes I just wish everybody knew how hard we worked [to be inclusive],” said commission member Cynthia East, whose children attended Central High at the time of the 40th anniversary and whose father was part of the STOP campaign in the 1950s, which fought the Faubus-inspired purge of school teachers believed to be supportive of desegregation. “There’s not one commissioner that’s trying to keep any person away. If we could have the whole world sit in Central’s front yard, we would.”
As Steele and Charles have spoken out on the need to attract a black audience at anniversary events, Ralph Brodie, student body president at Central in 1957-58, has spoken up about including white students of the crisis era in the conversations.
He has shopped what he calls a “show and tell” proposal about the “missing stories” of the 1957-58 school year to several key players in Little Rock, including Mayor Jim Dailey. The mayor, in turn, appointed Brodie to the commission this spring.
“Clearly he needed to be at the table with this commission so they can decide what topics will be part of the discussion,” Dailey said.
Brodie declined two requests to be interviewed for this article, but he sent more than 20 pages of background information and comments about the upcoming National Parks Service museum to Superintendent Michael Madell, with copies of a letter sent to the anniversary commission co-chairs, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Sen. Mark Pryor, Rep. Vic Snyder and Dailey.
He said that upcoming plans for the exhibit lacked the stories of a series of “good citizens” who were either actively involved or stood witness to the desegregation events in the 1950s, including Mayor Woodrow Mann, the 1954-57 Little Rock School Board and its superintendent, Virgil Blossom, Central Principal Jess Matthews, and the faculty, coaches and most of Central’s white students at the time.
“Bottom line: The full story of the total [Little Rock Central High School] students and faculty during that historic year has no dedicated exhibit space and the ‘missing stories’ of that year are still missing,” Brodie wrote in his letter, which is accompanied by about 10 letters of support from white classmates. “As a result, in the new enlarged museum spaces, as in the current smaller facility, when visitors exit they will see the magnificent Central High campus, but they will leave the museum with little or no knowledge about the positive role of 2,000 people — those I have labeled ‘good citizens’ — who held Central High together that year and who made everything work despite the difficulties the outside world forced them to face.”
Madell said he did not plan any substantial changes to the museum’s design after receiving Brodie’s input, but museum planners did ask Brodie and about a dozen other white students from that time to participate in an effort to record oral histories from as many witnesses as possible. The Little Rock Nine — Thelma Mothershed Wair, Trickey, Jefferson Thomas, Roberts, LaNier, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford and Melba Patillo Beals — have contributed their stories, as have community leaders, neighborhood residents and national guardsmen. Brodie and most of the other white students invited have not yet agreed to participate, Madell said.
“It’s not a chapter of history that reflects very well on the white community here in Little Rock,” Madell said. “We can’t change what occurred 50 years ago. To the extent that we can better understand what the prevailing philosophies were at the time … it’s very important for us to get those perspectives.”
For the anniversary activities, some members of the city’s commission have said they would like to find a way to have the perspectives of white students — and other witnesses of the time — heard.
“[Brodie] has had kind of a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ kind of opinion,” said commission member Andre Guerrero, who directs programs for language minority students for the Arkansas Department of Education. “That piece of history has been ignored. … I’m in favor of having what happened presented as accurately as possible, regardless of where the chips fall. If this is going to be a completely politically correct celebration, we’re cheating ourselves and our children.”
Fulfilling a mission?
If the purpose of anniversary events is, as the commission’s mission statement proclaims, to reflect on past mistakes, examine the present and promote reconciliation and growth in the future, that process may gradually gain momentum in the year ahead. Still, some question whether discussions and plans are moving fast enough.
“It’s like there are two or three tracks on which there is a locomotive moving at various speeds and various trajectories,” Guerrero said of the commission’s various plans, adding his concern that the real “meat” of the intended anniversary program had not yet been nailed down.
“The track that deals with the more educational, reflective piece of — ‘Where are we in terms of segregation? What were the lessons learned and have they been applied? What has the research shown us about resegregation?’ — that piece is not in place to my satisfaction,” Guerrero said.
Abrams agrees that the commission may be missing its target.
“I feel we have been a little too shallow in trying to carry out our mission statement,” she said. “I think we have a very qualitative mission statement. … We have a beacon, but we might not have kept an eye on the prize.”
As experts and activists are invited to speak at a series of forums and the broader assembly of all anniversary events comes into view, perhaps this mission will be reached. But even with such a wide range of events on the calendar, chances are there will always be more to talk about.
“These issues, if you don’t address them, keep coming back to bite you,” said Orfield of Harvard’s Civil Rights Project. “The last thing we should do is take these anniversaries as an occasion for celebration without reflection.”
For Trickey, who now travels the country teaching children about her experiences nearly 50 years ago at Central High and talking about the new forms of segregation that exist today, the hope is that another anniversary at Central High is another opportunity to spur young people into action.
“When I think about it as an old woman, my goodness, [we as] kids actually brought the country to a view of who we are,” she said. “I hope we’d inspire other young people to get busy, because [things are] pretty bad.”