After nearly two months of holidays, family visits, Fred’s Toura Obscura and Laura’s trip to Europe, we are now back in the saddle of visiting national park units once again. We have tallied up three more park units in the new year, all of them in Arkansas, and really enjoyed all that we saw, did, and learned in these places. Here’s the story of our first one:
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Separate was not equal in schools nor most places back in the 1950s, even though it was supposed to be according to the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy V. Ferguson back in 1896, where, after slavery was abolished, the Court established “separate but equal” doctrine.
In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education stating that black and white educational facilities were “inherently unequal.” The first significant test of this ruling came at Little Rock Central High School where nine brave black students enrolled in a white school and thus forced desegregation. These six young women and three young men had to each find his or her own way to keep going despite unrelenting verbal abuse and physical harassment by racist locals as well as some of their white classmates.
At the start of the 1957 school year, The Little Rock Nine, as they became known, were the only black students who volunteered to be the first to go to an all-white high school in what was to be a planned gradual integration in Little Rock. But Orval Faubus, the populist governor of Arkansas, was more concerned with reelection (sound familiar?) than upholding the new desegregation law. Crying “states rights” and claiming violence would erupt if blacks went to the white school, Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard who blocked the black students from attending. Barred from school, the Little Rock Nine studied on their own for a couple of weeks but harassment continued and the issue didn’t go away. Two weeks into the school year, a court order by Federal District Judge Ronald Davies ruled against Faubus’ use of the Guard and had the troops withdrawn, leaving only local police to protect the students and handle the angry crowds.
As timing would have it, the Little Rock crisis occurred in the infancy of TV and it was among the first news stories to be filmed. Now getting unwanted daily publicity on the national news, images of mobs screaming at one of the black female students and others of the beating of a black newsman prompted President Eisenhower to act. The nation was becoming embarrassed by these scenes that cast American society in a negative light. Eisenhower backed constitutionally-granted judicial and executive authority by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and sending in 1,200 troops from the 101st Airborne Division three weeks after the school year began to restore peace and allow the students to return to school. The next day the Little Rock Nine entered the school with the escort of these federal soldiers.
While life continued to be difficult for these students, they showed tremendous commitment and courage as they rode out the school year together. Eight of the nine completed the entire school year and the one who was a senior graduated with his class at the end of the year.
Because LRCHS is still a fully functioning high school with more than 2,000 students attending, the Visitor Center is across the street and the school is closed to site visitors except for pre-arranged group tours. Also part of the property is the Magnolia Mobil service station which became the impromptu press base from which reporters covered the story.
American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This is certainly the case at Central High School in Little Rock.
After visiting the Visitor Center and stepping back in time to take a much deeper dive into this story, I couldn’t help but reflect on the status of equality, or lack thereof, in some of our schools today. As a Chicago resident for 14 years and a prior board member of an organization working in the inner city Lutheran schools, I’ve had the opportunity to be in several Chicago schools. I have also shared stories with friends about their children’s experiences. From my own personal observation, segregation still exists, as does a very wide gap between the wealthy mostly-white suburban schools and the mostly-minority city schools. So while progress has been made, the struggle for civil rights still continues to this day….
For additional information and much more detail about the pivotal role this school and the town of Little Rock played in the struggle for civil rights in our American history, click here.