Decades After 'Little Rock Nine,' Segregation Remains - and Business Leaders Still Call the Shots

Repaved streets, refurbished front doors, and a new sculpture. One would not have to know the date to guess that we are approaching another anniversary of the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock’s Central High School. Local officials—black and white—will soon huddle on stages, jostle for position at microphones, and make the obligatory comments about progress and a long way to go. When the cameras stop rolling, they’ll return to their respective sides in a segregated city and continue ignoring the crises that plague today’s Little Rock School District. Their actions are predictable because this scenario unfolds in commemorations of the civil rights movement across the country. In this sense, Little Rock serves as a microcosm for a nation with conflicting priorities since the 1954 Brown decision.

We should always honor the immense courage and sacrifice that the first Black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, displayed by attending Central, as well as their subsequent contributions to this community. But an exclusive focus on the most dramatic moments in that saga undermines the urgent need to understand what happened next. Such episodic history invites whites, in particular, to look back in horror at an angry mob but disregard the actions of local leaders whose patriarchal approach to public education still echoes today. The two most striking parallels between the past and present are the insistence by white leaders that they know what is best for Black families and students and the recurrent role that local white business leaders play in undermining the public school system and prioritizing their prerogatives for the city.

Imperfect and incomplete as it was, the initial desegregation plan in Little Rock made 200 Black children eligible to attend Central. While the student population of Central was economically diverse, ascendant white families were building enclaves for themselves in west Little Rock and sending their kids to Hall High School, completed in 1957. Having protected the nouveau riche and many of their own students, white city leaders accepted a desegregation plan for Central. Of the 200 eligible Black students, about 75 expressed interest. Their reasons varied but largely revolved around the opportunities that Central afforded that were not available at their high school. This number was whittled to nine after administrators “screened” applicants, a process that included intimidating one-on-one interviews with potential Black students who were effectively told that their reasons for attending Central were misplaced. This procedure was followed until 1965, when a “freedom of choice” plan was implemented.

This plan worked well for whites who were moving west. It came with the expectation that Black and white families would “choose” to send their children to the nearest segregated school. At the beginning of the 1966-1967 school year, Mann High School in east Little Rock remained all-black, and Hall High School in west Little Rock had only seven Black students out of 1,429. Central High School appeared desegregated by comparison. Fifteen percent of its students were Black.

Less than ten years after the crisis, a nascent coalition of Black and white citizens pursued more complete desegregation and full compliance with federal court orders. They pressed their case through traditional democratic means: frequent petitions and school board elections. After elections in September 1966, they held sway with four of the seven board members, including T.E. Patterson, the first Black school board member and past executive secretary for the black teachers’ union. This election helped perpetuate a narrative of a progressive Little Rock that business leaders created after the 1957 crisis. This story endures today—the mob was primarily outsiders, Faubus was an opportunist, we can handle desegregation if the NAACP would leave us alone. An Arkansas Gazette editorial two days after the 1966 election grossly misinterpreted community sentiment. “While there is general talk about the country of ‘white backlash’—some of the talk wildly speculative and some of it supportable—Little Rock shows no sign of indulging in such puerile responses. Rather, Little Rock continues to show a strong desire to keep building those equal rights and opportunities that are the foundation of racial harmony.”

One of the first actions of the new majority on the school board was to hire a team of researchers from the University of Oregon who would devise the most effective plan to fully desegregate the entire Little Rock School District. Among other suggestions, their proposal recommended that all juniors and seniors in the district attend Hall High School. The Oregon plan ignited a controversy that threatened investments in white neighborhoods, reinvigorated segregationist sentiments, and permanently divided the city.

After the Oregon plan was presented to the public, school board elections in September 1967 and March 1968 saw the defeat of the coalition-backed candidates, and the plan was soon scrapped by newly elected board members who prioritized minimal compliance with federal desegregation guidelines in order to preserve the status quo. They were supported by the local Chamber of Commerce and realtors whose financial interests rested largely on the establishment and preservation of neighborhoods and schools in west Little Rock. As in other cities, a combination of lending practices and covenants ensured this part of the city was almost entirely white. When he announced his candidacy for the September 1967 election, William Meeks, a partner in the Block-Meeks Realty Company, explained that his reason for running was the threat posed by the Oregon report. “I feel it offers only tension, confusion and a lowering of the educational standards of the School District.” The latter phrase was repeated by whites who argued that the presence of black students diminished a school’s quality, much like realtors had long operated on the notion that Black residents adversely affected the home values of a neighborhood. Meeks was named Arkansas Realtor of the Year by the Arkansas Realtors Association in 1970.

When a federal judge ordered the implementation of a busing program for the 1971-1972 academic year to fully desegregate schools, white families simply left the school district en masse. They moved to surrounding cities, or they flocked to new private schools such as Pulaski Academy, where “we’ll be allowed to play ‘Dixie’ if we want to without having a riot about it,” said businessman and founder William Rector. 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.

By the fiftieth anniversary of the 1957 crisis, the school district also suffered from the inertia and nepotism that often characterizes large bureaucracies. Parents with connections or the wherewithal to navigate a labyrinth of administrators could land their kids in great schools or secure whatever learning services their children required. But the majority of the children in the district were left behind by administrators and a teachers’ union with more to gain by maintaining the status quo.

A progressive coalition of Black and white citizens resolved to address these shortcomings. They gained control of the school board after elections in 2013 and 2014. They renewed a focus on literacy at all grade levels. They voted for a building program that simultaneously served Black and white communities. For the first time in anyone’s memory, public school parents and teachers were hopeful about the future of the district.

But the state board of education—all Democratic appointees—took over the district on January 28, 2015, with a 5-4 vote. The pretense for the takeover was the determination that six of the district’s forty-eight schools were in academic distress, an arbitrary designation that regularly gets redefined. The most vocal advocates of the takeover were realtors, various business interests, and state board members who were openly amenable to charter schools backed by the state's powerful Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune. One member of the state board resigned after just one year to take a job with the Walton Foundation.

Sixty years ago Little Rock epitomized desegregation struggles in the South, but the city now follows a path worn by New Orleans, Memphis, and other cities wracked by the proliferation of charter schools. Like they have over the past sixty years, politicians and business leaders presume to know what is best for public schools, and their decisions reflect a preoccupation with the latest trends in business rather than research-based pedagogy. The replacement for the elected board, state education commissioner Johnny Key, was appointed by the new Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson despite having no experience as an educator. Key appointed a superintendent who was generally trusted by the city’s white elites, but that superintendent was promptly replaced when he openly criticized the inefficiency of expanding charter schools in a district that has been gradually losing students for years. With the exception of reconstituting one school, the state made no substantive changes at the distressed schools.

“Reflections of Progress” will serve as the theme for the sixtieth anniversary of the desegregation crisis. Things have certainly changed, but the standard is too low if we measure progress by events that unfolded in 1957. Reflecting on progress since 1967 would be more appropriate and sobering. White men again make all decisions for the school district. They act with the support of the Chamber of Commerce and, today, the Walton charter school lobby controlled by the state's powerful Walton family. Since the state takeover, many of the same bureaucrats have their six-figure salaries. Many of the same children cannot read. Little Rock periodically commemorates the 1957 controversy, but it constantly relives 1967.


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