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It's hard to compete with a constitutional crisis, and so the desegregation of Central High School has become fixed in the public mind as Arkansas's sole contribution to the national civil rights movement. John Kirk's job is to change that, bit by bit.
"I think there's far too often an understanding that the civil rights movement in Arkansas begins in 1957 and ends in 1959 when the schools reopen," said Kirk, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor of history and director of UALR's Institute for Race and Ethnicity. "My work is an attempt to tell a much bigger story that people often overlook when they reduce the entire history of the civil rights movement in Arkansas to that one event."
To that end, the institute's latest project is a new tool for educating the public: an app developed in partnership with the city of Little Rock that delivers users on a self-guided tour to 35 stops around town, from Philander Smith College to the Mexican Consulate on University Avenue. Central High looms large among the sites, of course, but it's grounded in decades of struggle before and after. "The idea is to put the Central High crisis in the much broader context of the city's history," Kirk said, as well as to expand the civil rights narrative to encompass the histories of other groups in Little Rock, including Native American, Latino, Japanese and Jewish Arkansans.
Kirk said there's still a sense in Arkansas "that the civil rights movement happened somewhere else: It happened over in Alabama and Mississippi." People remain largely unaware, for example, that the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960 triggered a contingent of Philander Smith students to follow suit in downtown Little Rock that same year, or that the 1961 Freedom Riders were arrested in the city en route to New Orleans. "We're trying to make the public aware that ... all the stories that unfolded in the 1950s and '60s also unfolded in Arkansas."
Using GPS, the Arkansas Civil Rights History Tour App steers users directly to sidewalk markers that are currently being installed at each site, at which point one can either listen to a brief recorded narrative or read the text of the exhibit, along with photos and links for further reading. Each audio spot is about 90 seconds and is available in English or Spanish. (Users also can simply access the app's exhibits without making a physical visit to its corresponding site, for the less ambulatory.) The app is available for free on the Apple and Google Play stores.
Caran Curry, the app's project manager for the city of Little Rock, said development was funded through a $20,000 grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council. "[The idea] originated with the Mayor's Tourism Commission," she said, in part to capitalize on the fact that Central High already makes Little Rock a pilgrimage point in the growing national market for civil rights tourism. The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, another partner in the project, will advertise the app to such tourists.
"It's been a fun project to work on — very enlightening," Curry said.
Along with the app, Kirk is also promoting the upcoming fifth annual Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail award ceremony, which honors individuals who broke through racial barriers in the state. Another project of the UALR Institute for Race and Ethnicity, the trail began in 2011 with the installation of markers outside the Old State House that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. In 2012, the Little Rock Nine were recognized, along with the adults who assisted them. In 2013, the project celebrated the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of downtown Little Rock department stores, and in 2014 it focused on health care professionals.
"The theme this year is going to be politics and law, roughly corresponding with the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act," Kirk said. "It's free and open to the public, and everyone's welcome to come along."
The 14 honorees will include Scipio Jones, an attorney who successfully defended a dozen men condemned to death after the Elaine race riots in 1919, and Wiley Branton, a trailblazer in African-American voter registration efforts and a leader in the desegregation of the University of Arkansas School of Law. The living will be honored as well, including former Little Rock Mayor Lottie Shackelford and Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock), who's been an active force in Pulaski County public schools for decades. The awards ceremony will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, on the corner of East Markham Street and Scott Street, outside the Statehouse Convention Center.
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