by Anthony Newkirk
How to achieve and maintain school desegregation has never been a fleeting matter and it’s never existed only in the past. The conflict that arose over desegregation at Little Rock’s Central High School in the late 1950s, its legacy, and how this historical process is remembered are literally “local affairs.” The official 60th anniversary of desegregation at Central High in September, and grassroots criticism of it, are cases in point.
We all know the story: Nine courageous black students overcame incredible odds many years ago to gain the right to attend a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas. This was one of the opening dramas of the civil rights movement, we’re told. Every ten years, we celebrate the heroism of the Little Rock Nine (Jefferson Thomas passed away in 2010).
But little has fundamentally changed since the U.S. high court handed down a desegregation order directly addressing the Central situation in 1958. By the 1980s, the term “resegregation” had appeared in political discourse. By then, the proportion of black students in the Little Rock School District (LRSD) reached 70 percent due to “white flight” to suburban school districts and an expansion of private schools. This was not supposed to happen with integration. In 1985, Garland County native Roy Reed reported in the New York Times that nearly 60 percent of Central students were black.
Last month, the Central High Integration 60th Anniversary Committee put together an observance of the 1957 events, which included an impressive website and a 30-page publication entitled “Reflections of Progress.” Numerous public and private institutions were sponsors. “Reflections of Progress” contains letters from former President Bill Clinton, Governor Asa Hutchinson, Senator Tom Cotton, Senator John Boozman, Representative French Hill, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore, Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore (chair of the anniversary committee), Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau, Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Gretchen Hall, and Central High National Historical Site Superintendent Robin White.
On September 25, the anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s entry into Central High guarded by armed paratroopers in 1957, a commemoration was held in Central’s packed auditorium with copious media coverage. Official speakers rehashed widely-held notions. Mayor Stodola characterized events at Central as “one of the first struggles of the civil rights movement” and a “painful moment in our past.” Governor Hutchinson noted the student body “looks different today.” President Clinton talked about his interest in “genomics.” Although advising the Nine to “put on your marching boots” to fight racism, he made the curious observation that “we’re back to tribalism, perfectly understandable.” Although his meandering statements lacked details, he declared that racism is caused by “resentment.”
Choosing President 42 to give the keynote address was ironic. A conservative Democrat, he has an impeccable neoliberal pedigree. In the White House, he championed corporate trade deals, economic warfare against Iraq, NATO-expansion, banking deregulation, harsher prison sentencing, and “welfare reform.” Since his governorship of Arkansas in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was associated with betrayals of organized labor.
There was another irony. Chosen by State Education Commissioner Johnny Key to head the Little Rock School Board (LRSB) over a year ago, Mike Poore sat onstage. Poore’s silence was deafening due to a remarkable series of coincidences over the past few years:
- March 26, 2013: Facilitating state takeovers of school districts, Arkansas Quality Charter School Act of 2013 signed by Democratic Governor Mike Beebe.
- January 9, 2014. Federal court orders desegregation payments to end in 2018.
- January 27, 2015. State Board of Education takes control over LRSD, declaring it in “academic distress.” The dissolved school board had been composed of blacks and progressives interested in bringing a measure of equity to the district.
- March 25, 2015. Johnny Key becomes Education Commissioner with endorsement of Republican Governor Hutchinson. Former GOP lawmaker Key is linked to leading forces in charter school movement.
- April 13, 2016. Charter school critic Baker Kurrus removed as LRSD Superintendent without explanation, to take effect June 30.
- May 19, 2016. Board of Education approves new charter schools in LRSD.
- January 17, 2017. Poore announces closure of four LRSD schools.
- June 23, 2017. Despite overwhelming defeat of millage extension at polls on May 9, LRSB announces plan to borrow money to build school in Southwest Little Rock.
- September 14, 2017. Board of Education approves three new charters in LRSD.
In fact, there was not unanimity among the speakers at Central. Besides supporting the right to universal suffrage and healthcare, Professor Henry Louis Gates declared there are “white supremacists in our midst.” The Little Rock Nine had their own comments. Elizabeth Eckford declared untruths were said at the 40th anniversary celebration about day-to-day life at Central (there was constant harassment and isolation). Terrence Roberts observed, “the time to celebrate has not yet come.” By referring to “forces determined to maintain the status quo,” he didn’t mean only 1957. Minniejean Brown Trickey pointed out that President Donald Trump is guilty of “profound intentional ignorance.” Read by her grandson, Thelma Mothershed Wair’s prepared statement called out the dangers posed by charter schools.
Further evidence of persistent misperceptions about desegregation in Little Rock is an exhibit of photographs on display at the Arkansas Arts Center in MacArthur Park. Arkansas Democrat staff photograph Will Counts took now-iconic photographs of the events. One photograph is of Grace Lorch standing next to Elizabeth Eckford at a bus stop outside Central on September 4, 1957. This photograph is absent from the 38 photographs in the exhibit, No mention made of Grace Lorch. This is not a trivial omission because she and her husband, a professor of mathematics at Philander Smith College, organized tutoring for the nine students before they were able to enter the school later in September (material published by the 60th Anniversary Committee doesn’t refer to this, either).
Like the Little Rock Nine and Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas Conference of the NAACP, the Lorches were targets of various forms of harassment. Grace did not have a rosy view of American society. Formerly a Boston, Massachusetts, elementary school teacher, she wrote in the newsletter of the New Orleans-based Southern Conference Educational Fund that white students at Central “have walls to break down, not as direct victims of race prejudice, but as victims of poverty and ignorance.” She didn’t like the “limited nature” of the desegregation plan devised by Superintendent Virgil Blossom for it “involved in reality only one school and a handful of pupils.” The scheme was “likely to leave the ‘silk stocking’ districts permanently segregated because of attendance areas established and locations of new schools constructed. This has enabled demagogues to agitate some whites fearful of jeopardizing further their own difficult economic positions or losing what little social status they think they possess.”
These prescient words are an apt description of the situation in Little Rock today.
According to “conventional wisdom,” desegregation was uncomplicated and has had nothing to do with current-day disputes about school privatization. A prevalent notion is there’s nothing “political” about charter schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. This was brought out by the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School.
What the Little Rock Nine experienced as students at Central was real enough. Powerful people who should know better have been hammering away for generations that such experiences are behind us (“some pretty sad times in our history,” as GOP Senator Tom Cotton put it in his letter to the Central High Integration 60th Anniversary Committee). Arkansans are also encouraged to believe that ending local democratic governance over the Little Rock School District (LRSD) is “progress.” This message is spread through outlets of the mass media.
What took place in Central High’s auditorium on September 25 was inauthentic. The “special remarks” of the Little Rock Nine were overshadowed by former President Bill Clinton’s disingenuous keynote address. Barely mentioned in commercial media, a small but growing number of Little Rock residents nevertheless sees through this charade. During the weekend before the official celebration, a program entitled “Sixty Years Still Fighting” was organized by local grassroots groups. The main event took place at the State Capitol the Saturday before the official celebration at Central. Over a hundred or so women, men, youths, and the elderly from different neighborhoods in Little Rock, Pulaski County, and further afield stood on the steps of the State Capitol listening to each other speak. They weren’t so much interested in celebrating abstractions as in addressing how historical reality impacts LRSD students today. There was an air of spontaneity mixed with gravity.
Democratic State Senator Joyce Elliott set the tone for the gathering. She invited people to share their concerns. Toney Orr, an organizer with Local 100 United Labor Unions, drew attention to similarities between integration opponents six decades ago and charter school advocates today; both have used the term “progress” to conceal their real intentions. Brenda Hyde, a community organizer from Jackson, Mississippi, spoke about assaults on public education in the Magnolia State. She stressed this is a national problem. Toney Orr, Jr., a current LRSD high school student, said that public schools perform an important service to the community by aiding disadvantaged children. Charter schools lack the funding to provide appropriate educational services to students with special needs. Toney’s brother Antonio spoke out against the unequal nature of schools in rich and poor districts. It’s unjust that poor families are blamed for “bad schools” when they have little part to play in forming education policies. Paul Spencer, a local Catholic school teacher, voiced support for a democratic LRSD.
Although no TV news teams were present at the State Capitol, information-sharing was the order of the day. In the Supreme Court chamber, Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Mothershed Wair gave brief words of encouragement to African-American students and the assembled in general. Other speakers included local medical doctor Anika Whitfield, an organizer with Save Our Schools. Senator Elliott and Samantha Toro of Grassroots Arkansas discussed the historical context of the crisis facing today’s LRSD. Small break-out sessions followed where individual participants could bring up matters like inequities in funding for public school districts.
On the evening of the official celebration, a new documentary about charter schools was shown at a local movie theater. Not connected with either Reflection of Progress or Sixty Years Still Fighting, the Anderson Institute for Race and Ethnicity at UALR was the sponsor. The film shows real-life examples of alternatives to charter schools (one is in Little Rock).
Prevailing notions notwithstanding, the Little Rock Nine are not disembodied icons. Ms. Eckford is open about what really happened to her and her friends at Central. The truth is sugar-coated by politicians and “civic leaders.”
Most Americans take it for granted that radical free market “reforms” are inevitable. This line of thinking was best expressed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s when she spoke of TINA (“there is no alternative”). Mayor Stodola employed the TINA method at a public event a week after appearing onstage at Central. He characterized recent “challenges” faced by the LRSD as things of the past (“discussions, some strident and some not-so-strident”).
But the issue is far from resolved. Former Democratic State Senator Jim Argue expressed his concerns with unregulated and unaccountable charter school expansion in Arkansas. Claiming he thought open-enrollment charters would help invigorate public education in Arkansas, Argue backed the Arkansas Charters School Act of 1999 when he was chair of the Senate Education Committee. Too bad he didn’t foresee the slippery slope.
Important pieces of federal legislation protect the investments hedge funds have made in charter schools. Introduced in Congress by William Archer, Republican chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000 gave tax breaks to banks and equity funds that invest in charter schools. Provisions of the bill were incorporated in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2001, signed into law by Bill Clinton. As reported by Alan Singer, a Hofstra University professor, the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act was reauthorized by Congress under President Barack Obama. Wall Street portfolio managers aren’t modest about the profitability of charter schools at public expense (when charters fail, taxpayers foot the bill).
We should be concerned when powerful special interests want to profit from things that hurt society. It’s time for us to see that some popular notions about, say, the past and the present are dead wrong (we’re usually told there is no link). When we wake up to this, the champions of “progress” won’t always have the last word. The truth always wins out in the end (of course, that’s cold comfort to, say, youths trapped in the school to prison pipeline, or to victims of police violence). The concern of the Little Rock Nine are as urgent now as they were 60 years ago. ACORN, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and Standing Rock are evidence of that.
There are a number of lessons we should take to heart:
- Always care about justice in the world.
- Become informed; recognize that repeated patterns of activity are often intentional.
- Always follow the money trail, even when it concerns public education.
- We’re in for a nasty surprise if we abandon public policy to those not concerned with our best interests.
- The civil rights struggle didn’t begin in the 1950s and it’s not over.
- The struggle against Jim Crow was never limited to the South, or to public schools (often forgotten are protests by sharecroppers and other “unskilled” black workers across the South against their exploitation).
- No “ism,” like racism, genderism, or xenophobia, is isolated from socio-economic factors (whether they develop organically, are planted by design, or arise out of a complicated balance of the two, we see the results and that’s all that really matters).
Segregation in 1950s Arkansas and resegregation today have been part of the larger context of social struggle. We must never forget that reactionaries in all their shifting guises sow confusion by drawing attention to certain things in isolation from other things. It’s equally important to understand that people who see through this trickery are also being intentional.
Public institutions shouldn’t be held hostage to the false narrative of “balanced budgets” and must be open to everyone in a community, no matter what the cost. It’s also time to understand that our capitalist society has a power structure and white supremacy is a crucial part of it. A good starting place is to dispel deeply-held myths about the desegregation of Central High School. This is exactly what the community groups who organized Sixty Years Still Fighting are doing.
Anthony Newkirk is a community activist and a Professor of History at Philander Smith College in Little Rock.