After 60 Years, Are We Honoring the Little Rock Nine?

By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Albertin, Walter, photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

September 25, 2017; WKSU-FM and AlterNet

September 25th was the sixtieth anniversary of an important milestone in our nation’s effort to end racial segregation. That day in 1957, the nation watched U.S. Army troops escort nine brave African American students through an angry crowd of protesters to enroll in Little Rock, Arkansas’s formerly all-white Central High School. The story was repeated in cities across the country—sometimes with less drama—as school districts complied with what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled was the law of the land in Brown v. Board of Education.

The bravery of the “Little Rock Nine” calls upon us to reflect upon how well we have honored them with enduring change. A look at our schools today presents a worrying picture; in too many cities, despite a more diverse national population, they are just as segregated as they were then. Courts and Congress did push integration forward, but their efforts have not been enough to change the cultural biases that made segregation so desirable to many.

By 1966, the Little Rock School Board was set to implement a final plan to complete the job of integration. But the backlash to the proposed plan, which included having one high school serve all juniors and seniors, was too great. William Meeks, then campaigning for a seat on the school board, described his opposition to a plan to fully integrate his community’s schools: “I feel it offers only tension, confusion and a lowering of the educational standards of the school district.” Unspoken were the worries that housing values would fall in all-white neighborhoods. His side of the debate took control and derailed local plans for full integration.

It took further court rulings to continue to push an unwilling community to fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. Barclay Key, associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, describes in his article at AlterNet the impact of white families deciding they did not want an integrated school system and moving to the suburbs:

By the mid-1970s, the majority of students in the Little Rock School District were Black and for the next forty years, district leaders remained obsessed with enticing white families back to the district. A 1989 agreement, for example, created specialty magnet schools that would provide unique learning opportunities for students in science, arts, or foreign languages, while maintaining a balance of Black and white students. The percentage of white students continued to decline, however, so this system actually favored white families.

Today, Little Rock’s schools are 70 percent Black in a city that, as of 2016, is 55 percent white.

The failure to addresses the roots of segregation is reflected inside the walls of Central High today. Zia Tollette, a current student at Central, marked the anniversary in article published by Youth Radio:

It’s been 60 years since the Little Rock Nine broke color barriers in education. But, living here, it doesn’t feel that long ago. Central is desegregated. But, like many schools across the nation, it’s not exactly integrated. These divisions are clear cut: black students eat in the cafeteria; white students eat on the patio. Central has AP, or advanced placement, classes, but those classes tend to be mostly white.

At the official anniversary ceremonies, Little Rock Judge Wendell Griffin told NPR reporter Debbie Elliott, “I’m not denying that what they did 60 years ago was not only historic and courageous but was radically revolutionarily progressive. My point is that this community, this state, this nation has not kept faith with their sacrifice.” Former president and Arkansas governor Bill Clinton said, at the same ceremony, “So I wanted to say, you did 60 years. Take a victory lap. Put on your dancing shoes. Have a good time. But instead I have to say, you’ve got to put on your marching boots and lead us again.”

Little Rock is, unfortunately, not unique. Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee, in a recently published report for the LeRoy Collins Institute, Florida State University, concluded,

Florida has the most diverse student body in its history, and data show the diversity will become far greater. Since Brown v. Board of Education—the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on segregation—schools in the South changed sharply to promote integration, and so did Florida schools. Although Florida schools achieved more integration than those in most other states, the trends in this report show that re-segregation is underway in Florida schools and that segregation now is more complex than it was a half century ago. The proportion of Hispanic students dramatically increased for the past decades, adding racial and linguistic diversity in Florida schools. Moreover, segregation is concentrated in urban areas, exacerbating education quality of schools located in low-income urban communities where school segregation is deeply associated with residential segregation. Additionally, it is mainly black and Hispanic students who attend such segregated schools in Florida.

For signs of the will to overcome the persistent power of bias, one might turn one’s eyes to Denver, which has taken steps to increase its schools’ economic integration. Earlier this year, NPQ examined their strategy, which might also work to minimize racial segregation: redrawing school catchment boundaries to ensure diverse neighborhoods share each school building, enacting standards that favor underrepresented populations, creating desirable choice schools, and ensuring transportation systems are in place to make choice practical. As Brian Eschbacher described the results in Brookings’ Brown Center Chalkboard,

Since 2010, DPS has become less segregated as a result of the strategies above. In 2011, the year before SchoolChoice launched, 42 percent of DPS students attended schools with either more than 90 percent [receiving free or reduced-price lunch (FRL)] or less than 10 percent FRL. Over the last five years, the percentage of students attending schools with those demographics has steadily declined, down to 30 percent in 2016.

Sixty years after Black and white students first shared a classroom in Little Rock, we still must decide if we actually want diverse integrated communities and schools that reflect them. This decision doesn’t ask us to choose between the social value of integration and educational quality; recent research has confirmed that all students benefit from attending diverse schools. Instead, this struggle is about the willingness of those with power to do the right thing.—Martin Levine