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The planning process for Little Rock's observance of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School has been marked by controversy. At various times both blacks and whites (particularly students at Central in 1957) have complained about insufficient inclusion in the program.
Black dissatisfaction has now spurred a concrete response. A group led by lawyer Simmons Smith and a Methodist minister, the Rev. William Robinson, has created a counter commemoration to the “official” city observance.
It will run Sept. 16-23, the week preceding the official observance and will be called The Central High School Commemoration 1957-2007: 50 years of Crisis — A Black Reality Check.
The reality, say organizers, is that while schools and other institutions may be desegregated, blacks in Arkansas still face a crisis in education and economic opportunity. Sponsors include Black Community Developers, Arkansas Black Pages, Help Inc., All Communications, Matthews Computers and a number of churches and ministers.
Carolyn R. Hobbs, a social worker and executive director of Help Home who is serving as press spokesperson for the event, said the city's ceremonies do not reflect reality for black children and parents. “We do not want America to think everything is OK [in Little Rock] when there is still a crisis,” she said.
Most black children do not receive an adequate education, Hobbs said. She added that many black parents are either unemployed or underemployed and too many blacks are locked up in the penal system
“Our children are called underachievers,” she said. “They are not achieving in school because of the treatment they receive in the Little Rock School District. There are not enough African-American teachers and administrators [to serve] as positive models for black children [who need encouragement to excel in school] because their test scores are low. They are experiencing an emotional crisis.”
Hobbs contends that doors shut at Central before desegregation remain shut, at least metaphorically. “We do not really have anything to commemorate. We are still prevented from receiving equal opportunities in education and jobs. The only job opportunities [many poor parents] have are working for Wal-Mart, Target, fast-food restaurants, and supermarkets,” she said, referring to such jobs as merely a transition from “working in the cotton fields during slavery.”
Hobbs contends that the city's commemoration is focused more on celebrating what happened 50 years ago (though city planners have studiously avoided the use of the word “celebration”) rather than improving conditions in education and investing in the neighborhood around Central High.
Hobbs said organizers want the event to be an effective start for improving schools, providing mentors for black children and creating more good jobs.
Virgil Miller, a black banker who is co-chair of the city's official celebration (see its events at www.arkansasglobecoming.com), said he knew of the Reality Check event and didn't think it would conflict with the city's observance.
“The Commission decided early on that we would not be able to cover all the issues that the community might want to have,” Miller said. “We encouraged other organizations to commemorate the anniversary in their own way. “
Here is the schedule of events for the Reality Check:
Sunday, Sept. 16
• 7 a.m., Sunrise Service, Fantasy Garden, Asher and Woodrow streets.
• 7:30 a.m., march to Union AME Church.
• 8 a.m., Union AME Church Service, Central High Commemoration.
• 2 p.m., Gospel Explosion, Fantasy Garden.
• 6 p.m., Parade of Cars to Glory, Fantasy Garden.
• 7 p.m., '57 “Central's Forgotten Heroes,” Hoover United Methodist Church.
Monday, Sept. 17
• 7 p.m., Methodists in the '57 Central High Crisis, presentation, discussion and conclusions, Bullock Temple CME Church.
Tuesday, Sept. 18
• 7 p.m., Baptists in the '57 Central High Crisis, presentation, discussion and conclusions, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.
Wednesday, Sept. 19
• 7 p.m., Church of God in Christ in the '57 Central High Crisis, presentation, discussion and conclusions, Church of God in Christ Revelations.
Thursday, Sept. 20
• 7 p.m., NAACP/Black Business Community in the '57 Central High Crisis, presentation, discussion, conclusions, Arkansas Baptist College gym.
Friday, Sept. 21
• 7 p.m., Black Progress: Next 50 Years — Where from Here? Development of 50-Year Plan for the future of Black Little Rock, presentation, discussion and conclusions, Philander Smith College, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 22
• 2 p.m., Community picnic, Fantasy Garden.
• 7 p.m. Reggae concert, “Roots to Now,” Fantasy Garden.
Sunday, Sept. 23
• 7 a.m., Rufus Young Church Prayer Breakfast Honoring Chris Mercer, Rufus K. Young AME Church.
• 7 p.m., '57 Commemoration Banquet, Shorter College, North Little Rock.
Those wishing more information or who want to volunteer help or suggestions, call Rev. William Robinson at 663-7223 or Simmons S. Smith at 375-3993.
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