The legacy of Little Rock Central High

September 25, 2007

This is my alma mater. Beautiful building, isn’t it? The inside was a bit more rustic (to be generous) when I was a student there, though I’ve heard that much has been done to renovate and restore the place. The school has significance far beyond its architecture, though. Across Arkansas and even the country, it stands as a landmark of the civil rights movement and a reminder of the challenges this nation still faces.

Fifty years to the month, governor Orval Faubus, accompanied by Arkansas National Guardsmen, stood at those front doors and declared that nine black students (now known as the Little Rock Nine) seeking to attend the all-white school would be denied entry, in direct defiance of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. And on this very day in 1957, 1,000 airmen of the 101st Airborne Division of the Army, under orders from President Eisenhower, escorted the nine students into the school for their first full day of class.

It’s an historical irony that the once all-white school now enrolls mostly black students, who comprise more than 60% of the student body. And even though the school is “integrated,” I remember it only being so in its overall makeup. Pre-AP and AP courses were almost all white, while “regular” classes were almost all black. Between and after classes, white kids, for the most part, hung out with other white kids, and black kids predominately hung out with other black kids. Integrated schools are essential to ensuring equal opportunities for and preserving the rights of minority students, but from my point of view, something was, and still is, missing. The higher goal of racial harmony – beyond mere coexistence – remains unaccomplished and is even complicated by creeping re-segregation of the nation’s largest school districts.

The Jena 6 situation is another sobering reminder that racial tensions still exist. A major reason: issues of race, especially in many parts of the South, are as pervasive as they are difficult to understand, and it’s hard to fix something if you can’t comprehend (much less agree) exactly what that something is. Doing little justice to these issues is the mainstream media’s sensationalist and simplistic coverage of events like Jena, which actually seems to hamstring meaningful dialogue. This isn’t to say that the media is to blame, or that shallow coverage isn’t indicative of what the public wants. It’s our responsibility as a people to engage in thoughtful debates on solving social problems, and with respect to race, we (myself included) are failing miserably. Any time a controversy with a racial dimension garners attention, an all-too-familiar story unfolds: media begins coverage blitz, people call for someone’s firing / release / apology, talking heads rage war, Jesse Jackson speaks out, some quick fix occurs, and the public quickly stops caring. From Hurricane Katrina to Don Imus, situations that should have sparked a deeper discussion of race-rooted problems instead get cheapened and “resolved” as though these problems had never existed. And in the end, we’re right back where we started.

I’m reminded of my brief tenure as editor-in-chief of one of Carleton’s opinion journals. The other editors and I decided to devote an entire edition of the paper to issues of race. A lamentable aspect of Carleton’s campus life was that, while students of color appeared to have thoughtful discussions on issues of race among and across ethnic lines, those interactions involved few white students (who were, by far, the majority racial group). The ultimate aim was to encourage students of differing ethnic backgrounds to talk openly with each other. We made a major PR screw-up, however, and hosted a campuswide discussion to make amends. The edition, titled Race: Beyond Black and White, was published shortly thereafter and included was my own reflections on this discussion. The conclusion:

I realized that if we really are going to get where [] we all want to go – better cross-cultural understanding and a more equal playing field – it’ll take more than just being honest with one another. It begins with everyone coming to the table, day after day, with an earnest desire to understand one another. We must saddle in for the long haul. Hundreds of years of racism, and even the racial prejudices we invariably carry with us [], cannot be eradicated in a single evening. It will require us to look at the bumps, bruises, and broken bones we endure – both through racism’s effects and through the dialogue that is supposed to heal us – as necessary parts of a larger struggle. To hunker down in our own comfort zones, choosing to engage the other sides in combat and not in meaningful discussion, would only reinforce everyone’s preconceived notions. We must not falter. We must not waver. For us to begin rectifying racial inequities, we must be willing to genuinely listen, even if… no, especially when it hurts.

Simply mixing races isn’t enough. It has to involve people open to cross-cultural exchange. Talking isn’t enough. It has to be the right kind of talk. Even taking action isn’t enough. It has to be informed by shared understanding of the problem. If the mainstream media accurately portrays the depth and sophistication of our national dialogues on race, then we are indeed a country of cowards – too quick to jump on bandwagons, too eager to point fingers, too afraid to confront the real ills that keep us from being whole.

To cure those ills takes courage, first and foremost. And that’s exactly what the legacy of the Little Rock Nine tells us. Their refusal to be treated as any less than human helped lay the foundations for minority groups receiving equal protection under the law. With almost all discriminatory laws banished from the books, the only way to move forward is to confront the problems that contributed to those laws being enacted in the first place – a much trickier task.

For all its significance, what’s shown in the photo above is just a building; controversies like Jena mere symptoms. But fifty years ago, the Little Rock Nine approached that building with purpose and conviction and, in so doing, took steps toward achieving racial harmony. We still have many steps left to take. As painful as the process will invariably be, their memory demands that we face today’s challenges with the same seriousness and resolve with which they faced theirs. We owe it to them; we owe it to ourselves.


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