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The Little Rock Nine: 50 Years Later

Sunday, February 25, 2007

On Sept. 23, 1957, nine black high school students were greeted by an angry mob of more than 1,000 Little Rock residents protesting the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Before long, police had to escort the students to safety . This fall, Little Rock will celebrate the 50th anniversary of that pivotal moment. We asked Eddie Gonzalez, a senior program director for the National Park Foundation, to give us the lowdown on the anniversary.

WHEN: Sept. 23, with events leading up to the anniversary throughout the year.

THE BACK STORY: For nearly five decades, Little Rock Central High School has been an icon of the civil rights movement.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Over the next few years, schools across the country developed plans for integration; for Little Rock, high schools were to integrate by September 1957. But a few weeks before school was to begin, the governor ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prohibit African American students from entering Central High.

The governor's orders were overturned by a federal judge, but public opinion was still strongly against integration. With the arrival of the first day of school, Central High became a part of history.

THE SCHOOL: In addition to being part of the National Park Service, Central High (above) is a fully operating high school with more than 2,300 students. If you visit today, you'll see that the school looks much as it did 50 years ago. Across the street, the Park Service has turned a Mobil gas station into an interim visitor center; it offers ranger-led programs, interpretive displays and publications, exhibits and programs.

Free tours of the high school are by reservation only and can be made by contacting the visitor center. Info: 501-374-1957, http://www.nps.gov/chsc.

THE ANNIVERSARY: The highlight will be the opening of a new visitor center that will serve as a gateway for the Central High School experience. Personal accounts, photos, a theater, artifacts and artwork will be included.

The days surrounding the September anniversary will be marked by a festival and a ceremony on Central High's front lawn. Check http://www.centralhigh50th.org/ for more information.

March 10-11, the Park Service will present the Reel Civil Rights Film Festival at the Market Street Cinema (1521 Merrill Dr.). This free event will include such films as 2001's "Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown Trickey." Trickey was one of the Little Rock Nine. Info: http://www.nps.gov/chsc/planyourvisit/events.htm.

May 17-19, the NAACP will hold the Daisy Bates Educational Summit with the theme "Little Rock Central High 1957: Honoring the Legacy, Facing the Challenge." Go to http://www.naacp.org/ for fees and registration info.

Sept. 6-8, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will host a symposium on "The Little Rock Crisis: A 50-Year Perspective."

EATS/SLEEPS: Sparked by a convention center and the neighboring Peabody Little Rock hotel, the River Market district and downtown area offer a wide range of budget, midlevel and historical hotels.

Offerings include the Peabody (3 Statehouse Plaza, 501-906-4000, http://www.peabodylittlerock.com/; from $140 a night double) and the Courtyard by Marriott Little Rock Downtown (521 President Clinton Ave., 501-975-9800, http://www.marriott.com/; from $149). The Legacy Hotel and Suites (625 W. Capitol Ave., 888-456-3669, http://www.legacyhotel.com/; from $90) began as the Hotel Freiderica in 1913 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Experience Arkansas barbecue and local catfish cuisine in one of the city's many restaurants, including the Flying Fish of Little Rock (511 President Clinton Ave.), serving fried, steamed and grilled seafood in a family-friendly environment. Dinner for two is about $25 to $35.

GETTING THERE: Round-trip fares from the Washington area to Little Rock start at about $240. Once there, taxis and shuttle buses provide inexpensive transport to downtown hotels. Downtown serves as a great home base, with a variety of shops, restaurants and markets within walking distance of many hotels.

INFORMATION: Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau,800-844-4781, http://www.littlerock.com/.

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