You hear about it in a chat with two well-heeled black lawyers in their 30th-floor club atop a glass-and-steel bank building. They are fighting these days with old allies in the civil rights movement.
You bump into it in a middle-income home in an integrated suburb. The black family is far from fully accepted by suburban whites while being criticized by less fortunate blacks left back in the central city.
It comes pouring out from a 5th grade teacher in an inner-city school. She started teaching a quarter century ago in a segregated school, and now she is teaching again in an all- black school, and there is division with the black community about whether that is such a bad thing.
In short, the blacks of Little Rock -- a city that has become a national symbol of racial battles for others but which is hometown to me -- are caught these days between many different worlds, feeling the tug of the past and uncertain of where they should be going from here.
When I was a 10-year-old at a segregated school here in 1954, we didn't have that problem. We knew where we wanted to go. Our class, in fact, invented a game about it, a variation on Pin the Tail on the Donkey, which we played when the teacher stepped out of the room.
A handkerchief over our eyes, we would be twirled around while a map of the United States was rolled up and down. Then we would reach for the North and West to stick the pin in the places we wanted to move after growing up and finishing college. We dreamed of becoming doctors, lawyers, architects and many other things unattainable for us in Little Rock.
The apartheid of Little Rock was milder than towns in Alabama, Georgia and lynch-mad Mississippi. But here there were the familiar separate drinking fountains -- some labeled "White" and "Colored," some just painted white and brown -- separate parks, segregated movie theaters, no restaurant on Main Street where a black could eat and, most definitely, no memberships in the downtown private clubs. The slogan on Arkansas auto tags read: "Land of Opportunity." We appended a kicker: "The first opportunity you get, get out."
Don't misunderstand: We had reasonably happy childhoods. We knew vaguely that we were being shortchanged. At school we sat at desks discarded by the white schools and often read from used books with white childrens' names in them. But we didn't concentrate much on that, fretting more about the proddings of our parents, teachers, Sunday school superintendents, Cub Scout den masters and others to work hard toward our dreamy goals.
In fact, we hardly even noticed white kids. Years later, when I was at college in New England, for example, I met a white student who had grown up four blocks from me. When I told him my address, he described my house with an accuracy and detail that astonished me, then confessed that he had been our paperboy. In childhood we must have seen one another, we figured, but in Little Rock were all but invisible to each other.
My friends and I at Gibbs Elementary in 1954 were equally unaware of the profound changes being set in motion by the Supreme Court ruling that May saying something about school segregation being unconstitutional. It took three years before we knew a lot more. That was when nine kids, some good friends of ours, met National Guard troops and a screaming white mob as they attempted to enroll at all-white Central High, starting the race barriers falling.
Over the years they kept tumbling: schools, fountains, restaurants, theaters and, eventually, jobs. For many of my friends, that changed the object of the pin-the-map game we had played: You didn't have to leave Little Rock anymore, and many didn't.
From afar, I followed those friends' progress, feeling a tribal pride when Richard Mays, my best friend and school rival, became a lawyer and was appointed to an interim term on the Arkansas Supreme Court. I kept track of Henry Jones, the reserved kid two blocks up the street from me, as he went off to Yale and then Michigan Law, clerked for federal judges, practiced civil rights law and was appointed a federal magistrate in Little Rock by President Carter. When I came home on one vacation I ran into Perlesta Hollingsworth, who had been elected to the city council, and heard about others, including newcomers from small towns in Arkansas, who had started law practices or broken into management ranks at local banks, businesses and utilities. All was well, I thought.
Until about two years ago. That's when I started realizing that something had gone awry, that blacks were no longer sure which road they wanted to take, what they were really after.
There was no problem in John Walker's mind when he arrived in Little Rock in 1965 fresh out of Yale Law School.
An intense, impatient young man who had grown up in the dusty little town of Hope in southwestern Arkansas, Walker came to Little Rock as the representative of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and he quickly attacked the persisting discrimination. Walker persuaded Richard Mays, Henry Jones, Perlesta Hollingsworth and others to come join his private civil rights practice.
Initially, there was a headiness to it all. The firm reinvigorated the inactive school case filed to desegregate Central High. The Little Rock school board had devised elaborate delaying tactics, and whites rapidly were fleeing the city's public schools.
Walker and his partners won rapid victories in that case and in class-action suits against job discrimination at local utilities, banks, railroads, paper companies, aluminum plants and departments of state government. Even a supervisor in the state department for the blind, who himself was blind, was found in court to be discriminating against a black employe.
Those victories not only opened up more job opportunities for blacks. They also brought sizable legal fees to the rising attorneys, fees that the losers had to pay. They also brought the deep dilemmas of success, of moving into another world, of being torn between the old and the new.
Walker, Mays, Hollingsworth and many other black families, for example, could now buy land and build comfortable homes on the west side of town, in the direction the whites were fleeing. These families mostly expected the neighborhood to end up integrated, but whites never moved in their subdivision, University Park, in any significant numbers.
Rather, it seemed by the early 1970s that the neighbors they were about to get were poor blacks. That was the plan of federal housing officials who wanted to build subsidized apartments on property adjoining University Park. The University Park families didn't like that idea at all. Many screamed and organized, and they killed it. Which is why University Park became known among those left behind in the decaying central city as "Sugar Hill," after a snobbish section of New York's Harlem.
"When it comes to the nitty gritty, we all start thinking about our property values," Hollingsworth will tell you. He should know. He has a big new house on a sloping, green acre of the property that had been intended for the subsidized apartments.
Other troubles also emerged. Hollingsworth and Mays started fighting with Walker over how to divide the legal fees awarded in civil rights cases. Walker insisted on a larger share than the others because of his more extensive experience, but Hollingsworth and Mays didn't buy that. The battle became bitter, and the two left Walker to set up practices of their own.
Though they built these new practices on civil rights cases, over time Hollingsworth and Mays added some corporate clients and bolstered their incomes. Mays says they each earn about $150,000 now.
Hollingsworth's firm has also been retained by the Little Rock school board to explore ways to merge the city and surrme aounding county's school systems. That angers Walker, who is still pursuing the 26-year-old desegregation suit against the school board. Although he isn't opposed to consolidation, he sees his former colleage as working for the side he's been fighting for 17 years.
"It's the white community's effort to undermine and divide the assault," he says bitterly. He then aims torrents of invective at Hollingsworth and Mays for representing his -- and once their -- public and corporate adversaries. "They have sold out for 30 pieces of silver," Walker says.
Mays laughs drily as he and Hollingsworth discuss the fee disputes and their break with Walker. Mays recalls that Walker used to say lawyers shouldn't earn more than $50,000 a year, then speculates that Walker is now taking home roughly triple that. "He started out with a Volkswagen. He has had a Jaguar and a Cadillac," Mays remarks.
These conflicts go well beyond the where Little Rock blacks go from here. Despite the conservative current in the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, Walker still wants to concentrate on battling against racial barriers. (For the sake of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that he successfully represented my mother when she sued the local YWCA after being forced into retirement.)
Mays and Hollingsworth think you have to do much more than remove obstacles. They note that the club memberships and corporate clients they've acquire after the barriers fell have taken them up only a few bottom rungs of the local ladder of power.
"Whites and blacks still have separate worlds, but when we meet, we have an accommodation," Mays says. "I see opportunity expanding. I almost have to address the question from an American perspective, not a Little Rock perspective. I think we have to get more into the concept of self-employment if we are going to get capitalism to work for us. Capitalism works for capitalists."
In fact, he and Hollingsworth are negotiating to buy and renovate a small old building on faded Main Street, which is showing faint signs of reviving.
Not that capitalism has worked much for blacks here so far. In one instance, local investors built a federally subsized hotel off the expressway that links the airport to downtown Little Rock. Unfortunately, the investors never were able to arrange for an interchange to be built off the highway, so potential guests didn't know how to get to the hotel. The building now houses the local Job Corps center.
If there's anywhere where the division between the old and new is evident, it is in the Little Rock schools.
Edith Powell, for example, is deeply troubled as she welcomes her new class of 5th graders at the opening school. It is 25 years since the crisis at Central High and since she taught her first class in the old segregated system. Now her class is all black again.
A new attendance plan put into effect last week, in fact, leaves three schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods all black and another with only a 7 percent white enrollment. Walker is challenging the legality of the plan in court.
Much to Walker's chagrin, though, many black parents are pleased by the plan, indeed even grateful for it. The parents voice weariness at having to put young children on buses to travel across town, especially since there often weren't many white children at the other end. Last year, a group of 117 black children were bused eight miles to a school in western Little Rock where only eight white pupils remained.
This year few black parents exercised their option to transfer their children out of the four newly resegregated schools. Indeed, at Mitchell four portable classrooms had to be added to accommodate black children from just outside Mitchell's attendance zone whose parents wanted them to go to Mitchell rather than be bused.
"Taking me back," says Mitchell's Powell in a pained whisper as her class quietly writes in their wirebound notebooks. Powell has one pupil in her class who reads substantially above grade level, but all the others are below national norms, a dismal record that would never have been tolerated at the segregated school where she started teaching a quarter century ago.
I know. The principal of that first school, George Washington Carver Elementary, was my father. He was a man who so insisted on rigorous standards that he once flunked one of his younger sisters in a biology class, a tale that became a part of Little Rock lore.
Carver Elementary is another school, in fact, that became all-black again last week. Cleo Crater, my father's secretary for years and still a major force at the school, was ebullient, not dismayed, by this turn of events. Of the busing experience, she says: "All our kids got was a three- year joy ride to the west side of town." The brightest got attention, she remarks, but the others were shunted aside.
Nathaniel W. Hill, the head of the city department of human services who also once taught at Carver, remembers how in the old segregated days "the school used to be the focal point of the neighborhood. When we lost that we lost something."
But he believes the problems go deeper: permissive attitudes of parents, a dispersal of the tight black community of neighbors, churchgoers, parents and teachers, who all took a hand in rearing the children. He, too, is frustrated by the changes wrought by desegregation, but he is not ready to give up.
"It may take 10 or 15 more years before we see the real benefit of integration, but between that time and the time we started, the black child will have really suffered," he says.
Integration or not, though, blacks talk a great deal about reinstating the old, tougher standards in the schools.
At Mitchell, for example, Powell talks about how, in the old black schools, teachers used to assign more homework than now, about how they operated not from modern educational "theories" but by setting firm, common-sense standards and laboring to ensur that students attained them. Her work for the year is cut out for her.
But first, she says, she wants to explain to the students at the 1:10 social studies lesson why there are no white students among them. "I will tell them the truth," she says. "There is still racism. No getting around that."
Remakably, many black children in Little Rock are not even aware of its history of racism. In part, this is because black parents have sought to protect their children from the world they grew up in.
Hollingsworth says his teenage children were skeptical of a recent TV docudrama on the Central High crisis until he assured them it was a roughly accurate account of what had happened. They were downright disbelieving, however, when he told them about the stores on Main Street that used to bar blacks from trying on clothes without buying them.
It is difficult to predict, of course, which road this new generation will take when they are in charge, this generation which has grown up living in both worlds. Some of them have already discovered the pain of the balancing act.
Charles Hodge, a college professor and administrator, for example, tells of the insults his family endured when they were the first black family in a middle-class subdivision. What was most painful, he says, was seeing his children rejected, looking on helplessly when white youth in the neighborhood skipped off to the country club and his children were left behind.
Another father recounts a very different dilemma of integration, telling what happened when his daughter was an attendant to the campus queen at her racially mixed high school. When she came on stage there was booing from the audience. When he looked around, he discovered it was coming from poorer black students, who apparently disapproved of her close friendships with white girls and the fact that she had dated a white football player.
I don't know if John Walker or Richard Mays or Perlesta Hollingsworth have any answers for that. They just helped create the new world of Little Rock. It will be for the new kids on the str, but all teets where I grew up to figure out what to do with it.