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The many meanings of Little Rock 

Sixty years later, the city's schools remain an enduring symbol.

click to enlarge MAJ. GEN. EDWIN WALKER'S TROOPS: Sent by President Eisenhower to keep the peace during the desegregation of Central High. Walker (center, on sidewalk) was captured inspecting the troops in this photograph by Will Counts. - WILL COUNTS COLLECTION/INDIANA UNIVERSITY
  • Will Counts Collection/Indiana University
  • MAJ. GEN. EDWIN WALKER'S TROOPS: Sent by President Eisenhower to keep the peace during the desegregation of Central High. Walker (center, on sidewalk) was captured inspecting the troops in this photograph by Will Counts.

Over the past 60 years, events surrounding the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in September 1957 have continued to make a political, economic, social and cultural impact. Scholars, journalists, commentators and others have mulled over the many meanings of the Little Rock school crisis at international, national, regional and local levels. Still today, the city remains a potent symbol in America's continuing civil rights struggle.

At an international level, the Little Rock school crisis was a public relations disaster for the United States as it fought a global cold war with the Soviet Union to win hearts and minds, many of which belonged to people of color. One historian has labeled it "a crisis of such magnitude for worldwide perceptions of race and American democracy that it would become a reference point for the future." International newspapers reported events in Little Rock, and critics of the U.S. pointed to the crisis as evidence of the country's disregard for human rights. Meanwhile, federal officials wrung their hands over the damage done.

At a national level, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's response to the Brown decision has been viewed as one of the major blights on his otherwise popular presidency. Eisenhower was reluctant to voice support for Brown in public, and he was disparaging of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in private. Only when Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus issued a direct challenge to the president's executive authority, calling out the National Guard to prevent a federal court order from being carried out by denying the entry of nine black students into Central High School, did Eisenhower act decisively to federalize the National Guard and send in federal troops.

click to enlarge WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS: Will Counts famed photograph capturing a student taunting Elizabeth Eckford illustrated the racist reception the Nine got. - WILL COUNTS COLLECTION/INDIANA UNIVERSITY
  • Will Counts Collection/Indiana University
  • WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS: Will Counts famed photograph capturing a student taunting Elizabeth Eckford illustrated the racist reception the Nine got.

At a regional level, the key question about the Little Rock crisis has been whether it represented a victory for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or for segregationists. Those pointing to a victory for segregationists contend that Eisenhower only sent troops into the city as a one-off emergency response and that his actions did not immediately pave the way for further strong executive action in defense of civil rights. Neither did it prevent the closing of all the city's high schools by Faubus the following year. The NAACP proved vulnerable to attack, and its branches in Arkansas and across the South were decimated by the late 1950s. Under these circumstances, some have argued that the Little Rock crisis may have strengthened the segregationist cause more than it aided black advancement.

Those pointing to the Little Rock crisis as a triumph for the NAACP note that it forced the issue of the implementation of school desegregation and thereby moved both the president and the Supreme Court, however reluctant, to act. Segregationists viewed the episode as a defeat, yet failed to unite in a common strategy of opposition. The enduring lessons of Little Rock from this perspective are the futility of directly defying court orders, the folly of closing public schools and the social and economic costs of racial turmoil. Few other governors tried to emulate Faubus' actions and few other business communities stepped forward to risk the hefty economic costs of racial conflict that Little Rock endured. The Brown decision may not have delivered all that many hoped it would, but it did set an important legal context for the dismantling of other areas of segregation in the South in the 1960s.

Little Rock instantaneously became a reference point in popular culture. It inspired poet Gwendolyn Brooks to write "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock" about black newspaper reporter L. Alex Wilson, who a white mob turned on and attacked during the first day of integrated classes at Central High. Wilson died prematurely in 1962 of what seems likely to have been Parkinson's Disease, very possibly brought on by his assault at Central. Jazz musician Charles Mingus composed music for and penned lyrics to a song called "Fables of Faubus," lambasting the Arkansas governor and labeling him, among other things, a "Nazi Fascist supremist." Another jazz great, Louis Armstrong, abandoned a government-sponsored trip to Moscow because of events in Little Rock. Armstrong told the press, "the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell."

Closer to home, at a local level, the city of Little Rock has continued to grapple with the meaning of the school crisis. In the decades immediately after, civic leaders looked to ignore events altogether, viewing them as an embarrassment and a detriment to the city's image and economy. In the 1970s and 1980s, tentative commemorations of the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the school crisis emerged that largely focused on pointing out how far desegregation had progressed in the city rather than forthrightly addressing the events of the past. As elsewhere in the United States, the 1970s and 1980s were when Little Rock's schools were at their most desegregated.

The 40th anniversary of the school crisis in 1997 coincided with Bill Clinton's presidency. Clinton embraced the legacy of the Little Rock Nine and the civil rights movement, and he symbolically joined with the nine black students on the steps of Central High School and walked with them through the school doors. It was a landmark moment, the city and state finally willing to own the school crisis as part of its history. Clinton later awarded the Little Rock Nine Congressional Gold Medals, the highest civilian award, and a Central High Museum and Visitor Center was established. On the 50th anniversary, a new National Park Service visitor center was dedicated and statues of the Little Rock Nine were placed on the Arkansas Capitol grounds.

Yet, the recent self-congratulatory anniversaries in the city have taken place against a backdrop of rapidly increasing school resegregation. Although Little Rock has promoted itself as having a successful Southern school district because it has managed to keep around a third* or so of its public school population white, in a city that is 49 percent white and 42 percent black, as the 60th anniversary approaches, there is a very real threat that the school district is about to go the way of many others in the United States in becoming even more intensely hyper-segregated. Whites continue to flee to private schools and, increasingly, to the growing quasi-private charter schools, leaving behind public schools that seem destined to become virtually entirely composed of black and poor children.

click to enlarge RIDE TO SCHOOL: Carlotta Walls (at center) and Minnijean Brown (at right) exit a government-owned station wagon to begin classes at Central High. They were escorted by troops from the 101st Airborne Division. Counts - WILL COUNTS COLLECTION/INDIANA UNIVERSITY
  • Will Counts Collection/Indiana University
  • RIDE TO SCHOOL: Carlotta Walls (at center) and Minnijean Brown (at right) exit a government-owned station wagon to begin classes at Central High. They were escorted by troops from the 101st Airborne Division. Counts

Little Rock remains, and will always remain, a bellwether for measuring the United States' progress in education. On the 60th anniversary of the school crisis, it seems that Little Rock's most enduring historical legacy is set to become that of a symbol of the nation's failed attempts to deliver equal education for all of its school children. As has always been the case, the power to determine how the rest of the world, and how the rest of the nation, views Little Rock and its legacy continues to rest in the hands of the people who live here.

*A previous version of this story mistakenly said that "a fifth or so" of the Little Rock School District's student population was white.

John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Joel E. Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is an internationally recognized expert on the Little Rock school crisis and the civil rights movement, and over the past year he has spoken about the 60th anniversary to audiences from Denmark to Australia.


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