Friday, March 30, 2012

Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas

Central High School was the place where on September 3, 1957 nine black students tried to gain entry into, what was then, an all white school.  John and I mistakenly thought we would just stop, look at the school and then be on our way. We were all wrong on that idea!  Our visit started at a visitor's center near the school were there are many displays relating to the integration crisis.  Shortly after we arrive a park ranger informed us that he would soon be leading a tour over to the high school. We joined the tour and headed out on Daisy Bates street, on which the school is located. Daisy Bates in 1957 was Arkansas State President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When the Supreme Court in 1954 declared racist segregation in public education unconstitutional, Daisy Bates, with her lawyer Thurgood Marshall, led the NAACP's protest against the Little Rock's plan for gradual desegregation of the public school and pressed for immediate desegregation. There is a lot more to her story, but I just want to note here that she was the one who mentored the nine African-American students.
The first stop on our walk with the park ranger Brian was at this gas station. It was here where newspaper reporters and journalists from around our nation gathered and made phone calls. Those people were the only barrier between the angry mob of demonstrators and the nine students. It was when one of the reporters received a severe beating from someone in the crowd that President Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard to safely escort the students into the high school- that occurred on September 25. Being with a park ranger allowed us into the high school. It is a part of the federal national park service, so no major changes in the structure of the building has taken place over the years since 1957. The school is presently a magnet school, with a high academic rating. It is now around 52% white and 40% black with a small number of international students. While we were inside the building the students were swarming in the halls. It was time for them to move between their classrooms. What we saw was a big contrast to the horrible experience of the the nine black students in 1957!  Presently black students move easily down the school halls, chatting in amicably with fellow white students. Back into 1957 the nine African American students were harassed continuously while attending school. One of the nine students was suspended and later expelled for retaliating against white classmates. The remaining eight completed the school year. Senior Ernest Green was the first African American to graduate from Central. He was told his diploma would be mailed to him, however, he insisted on being there- he had to march in by himself.  As a aside here, I want to make note one of the people who was with our tour group. She is an Asian woman whose mother had been in one of the internment camps in Arkansas during World War 11.  After Central High School we drove over to the Arkansas capitol building. We toured the capitol as well as well as the grounds, where we saw the sculpture pictured below. It is call Testament; a monument honoring the Little Rock Nine. I found some irony in the fact that here those nine are facing the office of the governor, the very seat of power which in 1957 fueled the crisis at Central High School. Initially Governor Orval Faubus sent the Arkansas National Guard to Central High to prevent the nine from entering the high school.

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