A Little Rock Reminder
Fifty years ago this week, President Dwight Eisenhower risked igniting the second U.S. civil war by sending 1,000 American soldiers into a Southern city. The troops, with bayonets at the end of their rifles, provided protection for nine black students trying to get into Little Rock's Central High School. Until the soldiers arrived, the black teenagers had been kept out by mobs and the Arkansas National Guard, in defiance of the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling ending school segregation.
The black children involved became the leading edge of a social experiment. Their lives offer answers to the question of what happens to black children who attend integrated schools, a question underscored by the recent Supreme Court ruling that voluntary school integration plans in Louisville and Seattle are unconstitutional.
The June decision said a focus on mixing students based on their skin color violates every student's right to be judged as an individual without regard to race. The ruling confirmed a political reality: America long ago lost its appetite for doing whatever it takes -- busing, magnet schools, court orders -- to integrate schools. The level of segregation in U.S. public schools has been growing since 1988, reversing the trend toward integration triggered by Brown v. Board of Education.
The movement away from school integration is glaring. The Civil Rights Project found in 2003 that the nation's 27 biggest school districts were "overwhelmingly" segregated with black and Latino students. Nationwide today, almost half of black and Latino children are in schools where less than 10 percent of the students are white. Those essentially segregated schools have a large percentage of low-income families and, according to researchers, "difficulty retaining highly qualified teachers." Meanwhile, the average white student attends a school that is 80 percent white and far more affluent than the schools for minority students.
This trend toward isolation of poor and minority students has consequences -- half of black and Latino students now drop out of high school.
Integrated schools benefit students, especially minorities. Research on the long-term outcomes of black and Latino students attending integrated schools indicates that those students "complete more years of education, earn higher degrees and major in more varied occupations than graduates of all-black schools."
That conclusion is reflected in the lives of the Little Rock Nine, who represent the black middle class that grew rapidly as better schools became open to black people during the 1960s and '70s.
Ernest Green, 65, who became the first black student to graduate from Central High, is the most prominent of the nine. He earned a master's degree in sociology and worked in the Carter and Clinton administrations. He is director of public finance in Washington for Lehman Brothers.
Melba Pattillo Beals, 65, chairs the African American history department at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., and wrote an award-winning book about her experiences at Central High; Elizabeth Eckford, 65, is a probation officer in Arkansas; Gloria Ray Karlmark, 64, moved to Sweden to work for IBM and later founded and edited the magazine Computers in Industry; Carlotta Walls LaNier, 64, started a real estate company in Colorado; Terrence Roberts, 65, is a psychologist in California; Jefferson Thomas, 64, fought in Vietnam and worked in government in Ohio for nearly 30 years; Minniejean Brown Trickey, 66, worked in the Clinton administration and is a visiting writer at Arkansas State University; and Thelma Mothershed Wair, 66, became a teacher.
Part of their success comes from their ability to mix easily with black and white people and to comfortably join the social and professional networks that segregation kept from black people. In fact, most of the nine worked in mostly white organizations. And four of the nine married white people (three black women married white men, and one black man married a white woman).
In her book "Turn Away Thy Son," Arkansas native Elizabeth Jacoway notes that the nine never take a group picture with white spouses or mixed-race children. Jacoway believes they don't want to take away from black pride in their achievement or reignite segregationist fears about interracial sex.
Terrence Roberts, who went on to become a psychology professor, thinks "fear of black people in the family" is still a driving force pulling Americans away from integrated schools. Ernest Green, whose first wife was white, calls it the "zipper issue . . . sex and race are highly combustible."
The interracial daughter of Minniejean Brown Trickey, Spirit Trickey, works as a Park Service tour guide at a memorial to the events at Central High. She says visitors regularly ask why so many of the nine broke the taboo against interracial marriage.
"My answer is that the Little Rock Nine followed the principles of nonviolence," she said. "They married who they fell in love with. But it is telling that so many people ask about it. It tells me where we are today."
Juan Williams is a political analyst for National Public Radio and Fox News and the author of "Enough" and "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965."