- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

LITTLE ROCK — Memories die hard in Little Rock, the scene 50 years ago of the beginning of the most dramatic collision of state and federal authority since Appomattox, when an angry crowd of whites prevented nine black students from enrolling at Little Rock’s Central High School.

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  • Hours later, President Eisenhower dispatched paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce a U.S. District Court order to desegregate the palatial buff-brick school that stretches for two blocks along Park Street, cited by the American Association of Architects shortly after it was opened in 1927 as “the most beautiful high school in America.”

    Little Rock has been celebrating — “observing” might be more accurate — the anniversary of the event for more than a week, and last night the nine black students, “the Little Rock Nine,” were saluted by former President Bill Clinton at a gala dinner. This week’s celebrations began yesterday morning with the dedication of a Visitors Center at the school, which has become a national historic site administered by the National Park Service.

    Terrence Roberts, one of the nine, recalls the experience of how he walked into the school with his eight black classmates under military escort, unprepared for the hostility of the crowd. “We were filled with fear,” says Mr. Roberts, a clinical psychologist and professor at Antioch University in Los Angeles. “It was hard not to be afraid, deathly afraid. People were threatening to kill us.”

    Mr. Roberts, who left Central the next year after Little Rock residents voted overwhelmingly to close the schools rather than desegregate them, graduated from high school in California. He stays in touch with his past through the Little Rock Nine Foundation, which awarded scholarships last night to nine students, several of them from Arkansas, who attend underperforming schools.

    He does not see himself and the other eight as heroes, but he says some people do. “What I would want [students today] to know is that it’s really important to figure out how to educate self and to take advantage of any opportunity that arises to educate self,” he says. “Too many kids don”t understand what they are doing in schools. I once asked kids how many of them really wanted to be in school and not one of them raised their hands. A lot of them felt they were forced to go by parents or the government.”

    The history of “the crisis at Central High,” as the episode is called locally, began when Gov. Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent violence after a summer of simmering anger. Many Central parents were enraged that the school board, planning for desegregation since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, in 1957 chose Central for desegregation and built a new high school in a fashionable all-white neighborhood across town, to be kept all-white. The governor responded with a declaration that “no school district will be forced to mix the races as long as I am governor of Arkansas.”

    The governor’s critics accused him of manipulating public opinion to create the crisis, but the aftermath of the desegregation of Central High set off massive white flight to several nearby mostly white towns. The percentage of whites in Little Rock’s population has dropped from 80 percent in 1957 to a bare majority today. The enrollment in the declining school population of 27,000 is 70 percent black, and private schools, all but unknown 50 years ago, have proliferated. None are segregated, though they are mostly white.

    Phyllis Brandon, now an editor at the daily Arkansas Democrat Gazette, was a young reporter just out of the University of Arkansas when her editor told her to put on her bobby socks and her National Honor Society pin, collect a couple of textbooks and return to Central High, pretending to be a student.

    “I was not scared, but it was an unruly crowd,” she recalls. “The people at the paper were worried and my family was worried. The crowd was harassing the police and saying ‘You”re one of us. Why are you doing this?’ ”

    Fifty years on, she says, many whites in Little Rock have mixed emotions about the week’s events.

    “A lot of us are very sad to be celebrating such an unhappy time. For many people, this was not something to remember. It was not a good thing for this community or this city. It was a blemish on our record, with the National Guard coming in to keep those black students out. Some of us, I think, feel strange to be celebrating that.”

    The Rev. Hezekiah Stewart, a black minister who heads the Watershed Human and Community Development Agency, acknowledges the contemporary racial strife but sees “significant progress” over the past half-century.

    “Even with all of the tragedy that happened, 1957 was a good year for Little Rock. As a result of the conflict, the evil of racism was exposed and that”s when light came into this country as opposed to darkness. God made a decision to expose the evils and he used nine little black kids — who better to expose a crisis than those who are hurt by it, those who needed to benefit by it.”

    He wants to host a black and white ball to bring together a diverse group in the community. “I would love for my black brothers and sisters to know that there were whites back then who also assisted and also who were discriminated against because they supported integration. I know of at least one who nearly lost his law firm.”

    Mr. Stewart gave a Labor Day fish fry to feed 600 black and white homeless, and Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, was one of the honored guests. He cites her as an example to the community. Mrs. Trickey’s daughter, Spirit, 27, who moved back to Little Rock after her childhood in Canada, is an interpretive Park Ranger at the Central High School Visitor”s Center. Visitors are often astonished to learn that her mother was one of the Little Rock Nine. “I”m very proud of my mom and I consider it an honor to have a job that enables me to talk about her and interpret something so important to the world’s history,” she says. “The story is alive and well.”

    Cyrus Bahrassa, 17, whose mother is from India and his father from Iran, is president of the 2,400-member Central High School student body this year. Like most white students at Central, he takes “Advanced Placement” classes to prepare for college. Some black parents argue that this is “segregation within integration,” since few black students take the advanced courses.

    “It feels good to be a leader here in this historic year,” says Cyrus. “I think progress has really slowed to some degree. We’re integrated, but are we at a point in this country where integration is fluid and race is a nonissue? I think we are all comfortable in our own comfort zones. In order for us to reach out of our comfort zones, there has to be a reason. I don”t know what that reason is. But hopefully we will find it soon.”

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