Columns » Max Brantley

LR Central at 70

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The city of Little Rock has finished its "Reflections on Progress" observance of the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School and the people most affected managed to put well-placed asterisks on the notion that this was a story all about racial progress.

"We're not stupid," the unsinkable Minnijean Brown Trickey told me last Sunday night at the Clinton Presidential Center, where she and others of the Little Rock Nine were in the audience for a Bill Clinton talk opening an exhibit about his friend Nelson Mandela. Trickey reads the Arkansas Times from afar. She's well versed on the state takeover of the majority black school district and ouster of the majority black school board. She's aware of lingering problems and the persistence of inequality in education. For good measure, she repeated the comment at Monday's official ceremony at Central High.

Other remarks — some oblique, some pointed — demonstrated the Nine weren't going to be anybody's PR tool. They basked — deservedly — in the heroic limelight in which they are now cast, but they haven't forgotten the lonely, scary, violent 1957-58 school year or that their battle was meant to open doors for others.

Ernest Green, the first black Central graduate, noted the "Progress?" headline on the Arkansas Times cover story about the coming observance. He said he'd make it progress with an ellipsis. The story is still being written and those reviled in past years have counterparts today, he noted, specifically mentioning Colin Kaepernick.

The most moving moment was Gloria Ray Karlmark's recollection of her concern about whether anyone would sign her yearbook. "Becky," with whom she'd exchanged notes, surreptitiously did. Then a second female student did, writing, "In a different age, we might have been friends."

So, then, is the age different?

Carlotta Walls LaNier hinted that President Trump, fresh off his racially influenced attack on protests against police brutality by professional athletes like Kaepernick, seemed to represent a return to the bad old days. Bill Clinton was careful, but he and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates both referenced Republican incursions on the right to vote and other troubling current events. It might not be time to put on party shoes to celebrate, Clinton said, but the time to "put on marching boots."

Thelma Mothershed Wair, in words read by her grandson, expressed concern about the proliferation of charter schools here and their potential harm to conventional public schools. She echoed similar remarks by Judge Wiley Branton, son of a civil rights pioneer, at a panel on the crisis earlier in the week.

The words were spoken in the presence of Governor Hutchinson, who extolled the Nine but made no specific reference to Little Rock schools today, with his education commissioner, Johnny Key, sitting nearby. The Hutchinson-controlled state board of education has shown no interest in returning local autonomy to the majority black district. It has shown whole-hearted support for charter school proliferation, for both unproven and demonstrably second-rate private organizations. Mayor Mark Stodola also passed up a chance to stand up for the Little Rock School District.

So why does my headline say "Central at 70"? Because I worry. I hope that many of the surviving eight live into their mid-80s for another decennial honor. But given the present political climate — and the animus toward conventional public schools, particularly those in the city of Little Rock and particularly its local teachers union (another hero, unsung today, of the school crisis) — you have to wonder if there'll be a Little Rock School District in 2027. Instead, it just might be an amalgamation of unaccountable, publicly inscrutable charter schools. Even today, the Walton billions backing the charter school explosion employ a lobbyist who's long tried to wreck Central High School as a center of high-achieving high school graduates.

It is a time for marching boots.

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