Newcomers to the Little Rock metropolitan area can quickly ascertain three dominant attributes — its sprawling nature, predominantly segregated neighborhoods, and a hybrid education system of public and private schools.
In all these respects, however, the Arkansas capital was quite different at the time of the Central High crisis. Compared with other southern cities, the Little Rock of 1957 had a smaller physical footprint with a densely packed population at its core. More important, most of the neighborhoods were racially mixed.
The southeast section of Little Rock was almost entirely black. The northwest corridor, which was wealthier than the rest of the city in the late 1950s, was totally white. Most remaining residential areas, however, included both white and black residents, most all of them working class. As a result, Little Rock's whites and blacks were not entirely separated from one another in their daily lives even though key elements of Jim Crow held firm.
Also, at the time of the Central High crisis, only a handful of private schools (mostly Catholic schools connected to parish churches) existed anywhere in Pulaski County. This explains why Gov. Orval E. Faubus's decision to close the city's four public high schools in 1958-59 proved so disruptive, socially and economically.
How and why did these demographic and social transitions occur over the past 50 years?
Most historians point to the Little Rock School Board recall elections of May 1959, when voters retained the three board moderates and ousted the three segregationists, as the event that brought the Central High crisis to a conclusion. A biracial coalition of blacks and upscale whites, who wanted to prevent economic development opportunities from leaving the city, produced this narrow victory for moderation. A move toward moderation of Jim Crow showed itself throughout the region, in different ways. Upper-class whites outside of the deepest of the Deep South chose token school desegregation over massive resistance if it meant the continuation of economic vitality.
In the years after token desegregation began in most of the South, metropolitan areas tended toward one of two paths: the Atlanta model or the Charlotte model. As described by historian Matthew Lassiter in his new work, “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South,” the cities that went the direction of Atlanta (Memphis and New Orleans among them) between 1960 and the mid-1970s experienced aggressive white flight, with the rising suburbs becoming emphatic about their autonomy; the majority black cities that were left behind were poorer, but became enclaves of black empowerment.
In cities that followed the Charlotte model (including Nashville and Jacksonville), regionalism reigned; populations were stable, the boundaries of the city grew with the population and governmental entities merged. Blacks often became frustrated with an absence of political power as Charlotte-model cities kept whites in control through at-large elections and neighborhoods tended to segregate by class and race. In the Charlotte model, however, whites and blacks were forced to work together within school districts and cities. Indeed, some of these school districts became the most thoroughly integrated in the nation in the 1970s and 1980s.
An analysis of the demographic patterns in Arkansas's largest metropolitan area shows that neither model adequately explains the Little Rock experience. The city started down a path that contained key characteristics of the Charlotte model, including the denial of black empowerment by the use of at-large elections. Then, federal court decisions related to desegregation in the mid-1980s led to a watered-down version of the metropolitan divergence seen in Memphis and Atlanta. Little Rock became a city of emphatic racial and class separation within its growing city boundaries. The development of Interstate 630 through the heart of the city was the principal cause of this separation. Consequently, Little Rock ended up with some of the most troubling aspects of each of the two models.
Relatively little demographic change occurred in Little Rock during the first decade after the desegregation of Central High. The exception was the growth of the city's footprint to the west. While some housing development continued in the core of the city, most took place on the western edge, where more affluent residents moved to larger homes on larger lots; these residents gained some of the perceived benefits of suburbanization without having to uproot to the suburbs. The owners and developers of the timberlands where these homes were built also benefited. During this time, it is important to note, white residents mostly stayed within the city boundaries and kept their children in the public schools.
As enfranchised blacks began to participate more fully in politics, some biracial politics developed. However, the at-large elections to the city Board of Directors limited black representation, with only two blacks elected to the city board before 1978.
Court decisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s somewhat affected the city's relative stability. In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the “freedom of choice” plans that perpetuated token desegregation throughout the South, including in Little Rock. In 1971, the high court's decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education deemed busing as an appropriate remedy to segregation. The Little Rock School District had fully implemented a busing plan by the fall of 1973. These decisions, particularly Swann, promoted private school development and attendance in Little Rock (most notably the opening of Pulaski Academy and Central Arkansas Christian in the fall of 1971). Suburban growth, especially in neighboring Saline County, also became more prevalent in the 1970s.
These changes, nevertheless, were surprisingly modest as more than 90 percent of the students in Pulaski County stayed in public schools through the early 1980s and population growth in the city continued. Little Rock's city limits were expanding west, as new development occurred, but Little Rock School District boundaries had remained constant since 1968, when the Supreme Court rejected “freedom of choice.” As a result, residents on the western edge maintained access to city services but their children attended public schools in the overwhelmingly white Pulaski County Special School District. By the early 1980s, about 40 percent of the city's land mass was in the county school district.
Hints of suburbanization and private school development that surfaced with the start of busing went into overdrive after another jolt from the federal courts. In 1984, U.S. District Judge Henry Woods ordered the merger of all three Pulaski County school districts (Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special) as the only effective means of desegregating Little Rock schools. Although much of Woods' ruling would be overturned by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals a year later, the issue of busing intensified and was put to use by political leaders such as Tommy Robinson in his 1984 election to the U.S. House of Representatives and by suburban realtors who marketed “Cabot Schools” or “Bryant Schools” to promote suburban home sales.
Following an essential convergence of the city and School District boundaries in 1987, the number of private schools in Pulaski County increased dramatically, accompanied by a major shift of white students into those schools. Moreover, in the 1980s, white population growth in Pulaski County flattened while that of surrounding counties began a sharp rise that continues today. People who moved to Faulkner, Saline and Lonoke counties became part of towns that were clearly identifying themselves as outside of Little Rock's orbit.
Some would argue that other detriments of urban life, especially crime, drove this white flight. The number of murders in Little Rock rose in the early 1970s, but crime declined in the early 1980s. A major jump in murder rates in Little Rock occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the white population in Pulaski County had begun to decrease. Demographic dynamics are complex, but school politics were at the heart of the significant changes that began to occur in central Arkansas.
As suburbanization emerged in Central Arkansas, Little Rock became a city of emphatic racial and class separation within its growing city boundaries. Those who had moved west and to the suburbs were disproportionately upscale and disproportionately white. Left behind was a more heavily black, poorer core city. The placement of a six-lane freeway through the center of the city intensely enhanced this division.
Plans for a cross-town expressway to allow easy access to downtown Little Rock for people moving west had been drawn about the time of the Central High crisis. The construction of the middle section of the freeway began in 1964. Major funding shortfalls combined with litigation led by ACORN, a grass-roots organization that decried the destruction of low-income neighborhoods and the freeway's impact on existing parks, delayed construction of the eastern leg. Through the intervention of Congressman Wilbur Mills, the expressway became a part of the federal interstate highway system and, as Interstate 630, a beneficiary of substantial federal funding. By 1979, construction had resumed. The new highway was completed in 1985.
Interstate 630 separates whites from blacks both physically and psychologically. An examination of Census data maps through the decades illustrates the post-Interstate 630 racial division. Racially mixed neighborhoods were gone, replaced by hyper segregation.
A deliberate intent to create a racially divided city cannot be proven, but the record clearly shows actions by public officials and the private housing market that encouraged housing segregation in Little Rock. But no single factor looms as large in dividing the city as the interstate that cuts across it.
The demographic division formed by I-630 is not just racial in nature. The populations living on the two sides of the highway differ in income levels, poverty rates, education levels and the value of their housing. By the start of this century, driven by different life experiences, two fundamentally different worldviews have developed.
The excellent data collected annually in the UALR Racial Attitudes Survey reflect these differences. People who live south of I-630, as a group, see their community as a less-healthy place. Driven by their own school experiences, they are less likely to view the quality of the educational opportunities in the community's schools as adequate. They also are decidedly more critical of the political leaders and of school leadership than are city residents living north of the interstate.
Perhaps most troubling is the major “trust gap” that has developed in Little Rock. A mapping of responses to a series of questions in the UALR survey shows residents north of I-630 expressing high levels of trust in those with whom they interact on an ongoing basis. Residents south of the highway are less likely to trust their neighbors, co-workers, police officers and even fellow church members.
Even though blacks in Little Rock participate in an array of voluntary organizations, such community glue is problematically absent among a large number of residents. Our political and civic leaders must work to encourage these activities.
Despite this rather bleak analysis of a spatially separated metropolitan area and a racially separated Little Rock, signs of hope for a healthier community are evident as we enter the sixth decade since the Central High crisis. One is the ongoing revitalization of downtown Little Rock, which serves as a centripetal force against the sprawling tendencies of the metropolitan area. In particular, new development south of I-630 has cracked the expressway's wall. Another sign is an increasing Latino population, centered in southwest Little Rock and the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock, which offers an opportunity to move away from age-old racial dynamics that have defined Central Arkansas society and politics (even as it brings issues such as immigration into the local public discourse).
Finally, true hope can be found in a countervailing pattern of responses to an important question in the 2006 UALR survey. More than 80 percent of the Pulaski County residents — black and white — who were polled believe they can make a “big” or “moderate” impact in making “their community a better place to live.” The leaders of this community and, indeed, everyone who calls Little Rock home, must channel this sense of individual empowerment to tackle the challenges created by our collective past.
Dr. Jay Barth is associate professor of politics and director of civic engagement projects at Hendrix College. This piece is adapted from this year's J.N. Heiskell Distinguished Lecture sponsored by the Central Arkansas Library System and the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, which served as an introduction to the Butler Center's forthcoming web-based mapping series, “The Aftermath Map Collection: Geography of Race & Politics in Central Arkansas, 1957 and Beyond,” partly funded by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.