As students returned to classes at Little Rock Central High School today, Jeffrey Martin, 17, a white senior, stood on the spot where Arkansas governor Orval Faubus posted the National Guard 25 years ago to block the entry of nine black students.
"That situation was ridiculous," Martin said emphatically. "What race someone is doesn't make it any different."
On the school's broad lawn below, Regina Carpenter, 15, a black sophomore, sat underneath a tree with girlfriends near where a mob yelled at the nine black students as the guardsmen turned them away. She saw newsreels of the incident recently, she said, and "it got me mad."
Now the faculty is integrated, the ratio of black and white students is roughly equal and, she said, they get along -- after a fashion. Blacks talk to whites, Carpenter said. "We joke with them, but we don't hang around them."
Although the mobs, the troops and the bayonets are history, there is again a sense of racial crisis in the schools of Little Rock. The lawsuit filed in 1956 is still in court and more legal arguments are scheduled for January.
Today, 25 years after President Eisenhower dispatched paratroopers to usher in the beginning of desegregation, the schools here seem headed toward becoming virtually all black. As they reopened today, the focus of concern was on the elementary grades, where nearly three of every four students is black.
Business leaders are concerned that the trend poses a threat to the city's ability to continue to attract new industry as it successfully did before the recession.
There is widespread alarm that public support will dwindle for a predominately black school system. The majority of the electorate is white and the last two referendums to raise taxes for the schools were defeated.
No one has easy answers to this intricate puzzle.
The local Chamber of Commerce has thrown its weight behind a city-wide campaign to lure white children back to the public schools. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 white children transferred to private schools over the last decade after federal court pressure led to a crosstown busing plan.
Public service television commercials emphasize that Little Rock schools offer the widest array of accelerated courses in the state and have the greatest number of National Merit semifinalists. "My heart's in the public schools and so are my children," a white parent says on TV.
To make the public schools more acceptable to whites this year, the school board created a "magnet elementary school" with a dress code, strict discipline and emphasis on basic subjects. It also sharply curtailed busing.
The magnet school attracted more than 1,000 applications for 500 places but fewer than 40 of them were pupils from private schools.
When busing was cut back, four elementary schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods became more than 90 percent black. That change has prompted the renewal of the court battle. "It's sort of saying we have two classes of black children -- some who deserve to be with whites, some who should be by themselves," said John Walker, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who tried unsuccessfully to stop implementation of the plan over the summer but was unable to get a full court hearing until January.
But one of the many complex ironies in the current school situation is that even if the city prevails in court and even if white students are lured back, those efforts alone will not substantially halt the trend toward predominantly black schools.
Most of the growth in the white population of the metropolitan area has occurred outside the boundaries of the Little Rock school district, in areas where children attend the predominantly white Pulaski County school system.
Even though the city's population is about two-thirds white, most of the white population tends to be older. Over the last decade tremendous growth has occurred in the black population of the city because blacks here have higher birth rates than whites and because young black families are migrating from rural areas in the state.
Ultimately, the school board believes, the solution is a merger of the city and suburban school districts.
A couple of decades ago when the county school system was largely rural, it had proposed just such a consolidation, but was spurned by the Little Rock board. Now, as the county system has grown and become more suburban, the county board has informed Little Rock that it has no interest in any such merger.
The Little Rock board has hired lawyers to explore the possibility of going to court to force consolidation but many lawyers are uncertain as to how the courts would view such a request. While the city school system has grown blacker, there is widespread dissatisfaction among black parents about how their children are treated. Many complain that teachers, two-thirds of whom are white, do not pay the same attention to black students as teachers did in the old segregated system. A residue of bitterness remains because when busing began a decade ago young black children in the first three grades had to get up in the early morning darkness to ride buses to the other side of town. Most white students were not bused until they reached the fourth grade.
Civic leaders here brag about the racial harmony at Central. The headline for an article in Sunday's Arkansas Gazette, the state's leading newspaper, read: "25 Years Later, LR's Central High is Proof Desegregation Works." The article made passing mention of a fact that rankles many black parents -- because of academic tracking, many of the school's classes are segregated. Honors courses are largely composed of white students and basic courses are almost all black.
Charles Hodge, a college professor and administrator who is black, has a daughter at Central.
She is one of the few black students on the honors track, but he and his wife express deep concern over the situation at the school.
"The biggest difference at Central as far as I'm concerned is that there are no bayonets, there are no white students spitting on black students. There is no one running down the hall and calling blacks 'niggers,' " he said. "In that sense, it has changed since '57. But in terms of a truly integrated school setting, very little has changed over at Central. Central is a white school. The benefits are there for whites."