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Nearly Six Decades Later, Integration Remains A Work In Progress

Students in Central High School walk through the hallways between classes.
Debbie Elliot
Students in Central High School walk through the hallways between classes.

A federal judge in Little Rock, Ark., approved a settlement today that ends decades of litigation over school desegregation there.

The city was one of the first tests of the U.S. Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education, when President Eisenhower sent federal troops to integrate Central High School in 1957.

Just about anyone you speak to about the Little Rock desegregation case says it's time for the contentious and ongoing litigation to be over. But no one is really celebrating either.

"I'm happy courts are out of this," says Little Rock State Senator Joyce Elliott. "I'm absolutely not satisfied of where we are. Little Rock above all places should be the shining star of what integration was supposed to have meant."

Expectations were high given the city's history. But Max Brantley, senior editor of the Arkansas Times, says for all of the pessimism about racial inequities that remain, there has been a measure of progress at Little Rock when you compare it to other cities.

"Little Rock is only 66 percent black in its public school enrollment," says Brantley. "I don't think there's an urban city in the South that has retained as many white students as the Little Rock school system has retained."

One way Little Rock sought to desegregate was to enhance programs at schools located in poor, mostly black neighborhoods as a tool to attract more middle class and white students. One of those schools is historic Central High School, which offers an international studies curriculum.

Today, a diverse mix of kids bustles through the tiled hallways between classes. The school is 56 percent black, 30 percent white, with a sizable mix of Asian, Hispanic and international students.

At the epicenter of change

During the last period African-American history class, teacher Cynthia Nunnley asks "So is the work essentially done?"

Alicia Waits is the first to respond. "Not quite, it's more to work on," she says. "But it's better than what it was."

Waits sits on the front row in this elective class — one that's all black save for one Hispanic student. She says you see that divide throughout the school.

"I walked in the cafeteria today, I looked on the left side, I didn't see nothing but white people sitting at the table," says Waits. "I looked on the right side; it wasn't nothing but black people."

Senior Darius Porch says the work of the desegregation lawsuit is not yet complete. "This school is integrated," Porch says. "But I don't feel like we are as one."

The divide here is what you might find at hundreds of high schools across America, but Central remains in the spotlight as perhaps the most famous high school in the country because of the crisis here in 1957. That provides a powerful frame for students to think about their legacy.

After school, civics teacher George West directs a small group of students to circle up their desks. He's one of the advisers for what's called the Memory Project — students who conduct oral history interviews about the effects of discrimination.

They've published two books of essays. Not surprisingly, they have a lot to say about where Central has come in nearly 60 years of school litigation.

Junior Malik Marshall says the school is certainly desegregated, and has been since 1957. "We're desegregated," says Marshall. "We're not integrated because integration comes from the heart of the people that go here."

He says that's not something that somebody, or some court, can tell you to do. "It's something that you have to want to do," says Marshall.

He takes advanced placement courses and says he's usually one of just a few African-American faces in mostly white classrooms. So his friends tend to be white.

"It's this barrier between me and the other black people just because they know I like to hang out with white people," says Marshall. "The white people I hang out with, I physically look different, like I'm very singled out in that group. But these are the people I know. So it makes me feel like I don't belong anywhere, you know?"

Moving between groups can bring harsh judgment.

"I get called an Oreo sometimes," says Senior Micah Booker. "Which is like you're black on the outside and white on the inside because of how I talk and other things and stuff. So it can be hard."

Beyond the power of legislation

Most of the students here believe the magnet programs and other remedies called for in the desegregation case have improved educational opportunities for minority students, and they worry what will happen without them.

But they're also skeptical that courts can resolve the kind of social segregation you see at Central. Junior Rachel Schaffhauser, who is white, says students don't intentionally set out to divide themselves.

"I don't think I do it on purpose," says Schaffhauser. "I'm just like, 'Hey, I know that person. I'm going to sit with them.' If you walk into as a freshman on the first day of school and you don't know anybody except that one person — I'm going to go sit with that one person."

High school is hard enough without the pressure to break down society's racial barriers.

"When you come to Central and you see not only white people and black people, but also a group of Asian people, then you tend to kind of go towards them," says Sophomore Angela Wang. "They understand you. You're from the same background."

But Junior Sally Goldman says staying in that comfort zone can thwart racial progress.

"What I've heard a lot, not just from this group, but people as a whole, is, 'Oh, no, it's not racism. We're just sticking to what we know.' And I think that is racism," Goldman says. "Because we are afraid of what we don't know."

Having such a frank discussion is something that might not have been possible in 1957. And the students here are proud of what Central High School has achieved. It produces more national merit scholars than any other school in Arkansas.

"This is my school," says Malik Marshall. "I love it here."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.