"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
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.
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