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Echoes Of Little Rock

MINNIJEAN BROWN TRICKEY LIGHTS UP JUST TO think back on it, the corners of her broad face--the eyes, the mouth that can screw down with anger--opening now as if in bloom at the memory: the Dunbar Community Center, right here in Little Rock, where Minnijean once sang ""Love Is Strange'' with a house band called The Thrillers. Oh, The Thrillers! It must have been ... well, everybody here knows exactly how long ago it was, it was 40 years. They remember, and they warm to the memory, a soft spot from a hard year. This afternoon is just the second time they have all nine been together in all those years, and there is a lot they have never told: to each other, to their friends, even to their children. Here in the Excelsior Hotel lobby, they are unassuming--a teacher, a real-estate broker, apsychologist and so on, ordinary citizens grown up from ordinary kids. But for nine months in 1957 and 1958, as the governor of Arkansas fulminated and a mob raged, these nine black teenagers--""We were thinner then,'' says Trickey--represented all that was good in the changing South, and drew out all that was not. They have come now from as far away as the Netherlands to tell NEWSWEEK their stories.

This week the city of Little Rock honors the nine students who integrated Central High School--one of the crowning early victories of the civil-rights movement. Forty years ago the Little Rock nine risked their lives, and President Eisenhower committed the troops of the 101st Airborne against an American governor and American rabble. White mobs had been allowed to bar Autherine Lucy from the University of Alabama the year before; Little Rock impressed the rule of law upon the nation's racial battlegrounds. Now, in a city thathas never really come to terms with thisugly and heroic chapter of its history, the nine will finally get their due. President Clinton, who was 11 at the time, will speak in their honor (box). The nine--MelbaPattillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown Trickey and Thelma Mothershed-Wair--will at last be welcomed in the halls from which they were once violently rebuffed.

The moment reclaims a shining victory, one free of ambiguity or quibble. Yet there are anxieties, personal and political. ""Will we have to walk through the crowd?'' asks Elizabeth Eckford, who still acutely resembles the sunglassed girl in the famous photograph, walking stoic and alone into a hostile mob the first day. (When she got home, she recalls, she could wring the spittle from her dress.) The state and local NAACP chapters, which feel left out of the planning, have vowed to boycott the program. ""It's nothing but a charade to make people think that we've come so far from that day,'' says state NAACP president Dale H. Charles.

And there are difficult ironies. As Little Rock basks in the anniversary of this triumph over legal segregation, the nation's schools are again becoming increasingly segregated. Decades of white flight have created central city school systems in which there are no longer whites around to mix with. Two thirds of all black students, and nearly three fourths of all Latinos, now attend schools that are more than half minority--a higher percentage than in 1972, when courts first ordered busing to repair this imbalance. In big central cities, black students attend schools that are 83 percent minority. The U.S. Supreme Court, reversing nearly 40 years of judicial action, has been overturning desegregation orders across the country; since the appointment of Clarence Thomas in 1991, the high court has repeatedly held that trying to integrate schools in increasingly segregated communities doesn't work. It has also ruled that city school districts cannot force suburban schools to accept urban kids as a meansof redressing segregation--a decision that makes school desegregation impossible, says Dr. Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation.

Little Rock offers a chafing illustration of the new calculus. Forty years after its nine students broke the color line, the district and its two--whiter--neighbors remain under one of the still-standing federal desegregation orders, a legacy of administrations that built schools to serve white pocket communities. Since the desegregation order, much of the white population has simply moved out, or opted for private schools. Even where schools are integrated, white and minority students are often segregated into different tracks. At Central High, for example, with a 61 percent black student body last year, blacks accounted for only 13 percent of the students in advanced placement or gifted and talented classes. ""Remedial programs,'' says principal Rudolph Howard, who is African-American, ""are predominantly one race.''

The battles fought by the nine are still unresolved. ""Would we have been better served had black Americans been allowed to educate black Americans?'' asks Rudolph. ""I don't feel that this is the case, but it is certainly worth evaluating.'' Blacks have long debated the merits of integration vs. nationalism or separatism, at least since the days of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. But this time some of the opposition to busing is coming from its former champions. ""We spent $13 million in transportation in Yonkers [N.Y.], with no appreciable gains in education,'' says Kenneth Jenkins, whose public doubts about busing cost him his position as president of the Yonkers NAACP. In a school district that is 75 percent minority, he saw little profit in chasing whites. Jenkins, 36, cites a ""generation gap within the organization--[older] people looked at my remarks as a giveback.'' But even the national organization is questioning its stance on busing,sort of. Before its national convention this July, chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams vowed that the NAACP would debate its position (it didn't, and Evers-Williams did not respond to interview requests from NEWSWEEK). While she fiddles, African-American mayors in Cleveland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver and St. Louis have sought to end busing programs.

Among the black middle class, there is also a rising nostalgia for the tight-knit communities it had before integration, and for the nurturing schools that were the hope of these communities. At Central, senior-class president Fatima McKindra, fresh from a summer at MIT, says she's leaning toward attending a historically black university. ""I appreciate being around all types of people at Central,'' she says. ""But my interest in wanting a black college is more family- and church-based, wanting to have that environment my four years in college. There are times when I just want to be around people that are like me.'' (Still, in a 1997 Gallup poll, only 7 percent of blacks said they would prefer to live in a black neighborhood; the overwhelming majority chose a mixed one.)

All this talk of resegregation unsettles the Little Rock nine. Did they really endure nine months of threat and abuse for this? ""That's bad,'' says Jefferson Thomas, in mild understatement, ""because it was so hard to change it before.'' In 1957 Thomas was, by his reckoning, a very fast sprinter--a useful gift at Central. Now, after a heart attack last summer and complications from diabetes, he is graying at the temples and slower in gait, his sense of humor embedded in his subtle inflections.

On a Sunday morning, Thomas is showing visitors the old neighborhood. Since his family moved out--his father lost his job during the integration backlash--he has rarely returned to Little Rock, and even then ""as if I was slipping in and out of town.'' Yet he warms to the old sights: there's the weathered church where Little Stevie Wonder used to sing; there's Carlotta Walls LaNier's old house, bombed mysteriously in her senior year; there's the old Ninth Street black business (and social) hub, now paved over for the interstate; there's the field where he used to play football with white kids, up until the day blacks tried to enter Central. Asked what he's feeling right now, right here, he sidesteps. ""The frightening thing,'' he later muses, ""is that they thought they were right.''

At the hub of these sights is Central, a building once dubbed ""the most beautiful high school in America'' by the American Institute of Architects. Within its halls, it is easy to see why students would want to come here: the school produces more National Merit Scholarship semifinalists than any other in the state; the facilities are more imposing than many college campuses. For the Little Rock nine, it offered access not so much to white students as to a world withheld. The black schools offered an excellent education, says Terrence Roberts, now a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. ""But as a black person I was stymied in many ways. I was primed for a change.'' Entering the school for a NEWSWEEK photo shoot, the nine are on edge; the last time they walked these halls, it was to abuse and menace. Eckford, after she catches her breath, is surprised that the hallways aren't wider. ""My guard was always on this side,'' she says, ""and I was getting slammed against the lockers on that side. It seemed so far away.''

In a famous photograph, as she faces down the mob alone, Eckford seems almost preternaturally composed. But to meet her is to see the fragility behind that poise. She still lives in Little Rock, where she tends her sick father in a modest house without a phone--in part for economic reasons, in part, one suspects, so she won't have to field questions about her past. Even now, Carlotta LaNier and Melba Pattillo Beals have to persuade her to speak to NEWSWEEK, and they hold her hands through the interview. Eckford, who was briefly a journalist in the army, says she once tried to write about her Central High experiences but had to stop. ""I felt like before I die I ought to tell my side of things,'' she says. ""It never got easier. I thought it would over time.'' Beals, who has written a moving memoir about Little Rock, ""Warriors Don't Cry,'' consoles Eckford: ""If you talked about it more it might help. I've had 12 years of therapy. I'm just now paying off the last $20,000 of therapy bills.''

Other memories, long suppressed, come to the surface. Gloria Ray Karlmark peers into the ladies' room. ""I never went in there that whole year,'' she says; it was too dangerous--the 101st Airborne could not follow their charges there. Karlmark, who lives in the Netherlands, is surprised by what she has seen in the United States, including the emergence of what she calls ""black racism.'' In tears, she recalls the day FBI agents told her parents they needed her fingerprints, ""so that they could identify my body when it was found. You don't say that to a child, do you? Imagine a 14-year-old child hearing that stuff.''

After Little Rock, most of the nine sought anonymity, refuge from the battle. For years, Thomas says, he would not even attend football games or parades. ""After being the recipient of mob violence, you tend to want to stay away from large groups of people.'' Except for Ernest Green, who was the subject of a TV movie, none became civil-rights celebrities. Says LaNier, ""After Central, I just wanted to be a number.'' Like Holocaust survivors, many didn't even tell their children about their pasts. Karlmark told her kids about the civil-rights movement but left out her role in it. Thelma Mothershed-Wair's son Scott came home from second grade one day and asked her, ""Mom, Mom, are you black history?'' LaNier let her kids watch a TV movie about Little Rock. Jefferson Thomas Jr. learned about his father from a junior-high-school assignment. ""He got angry that I never told him,'' says the elder Thomas.

The overlooked heroes of Little Rock, the nine say, are their parents. Ernest Green, the only one who graduated that year, credits them with a faith in progress now sucked from black communities. Green, a vice president at Lehman Brothers, says that the parents' generation was denied opportunity, but ""they were going to make darn sure it was possible for their kids.''

In the end, any rethinking of integration engages this question of faith, and the conditions that make it possible. Roberts says, of both 1957 and 1997, ""It's not about separating or integrating; it's about trying to find a formula that's going to supply black children with what they need to succeed in the society.'' As a different, celebratory crowd plans to welcome the nine to Central, it is sobering to consider what hasn't changed in 40 years. ""We thought that once the [whites] saw that black people are not devils, we don't carry knives or guns, we can read and write, they would accept us,'' says Thomas. ""But after they knew us, they still didn't like us.''

This remains the context for all debates about integration. And it makes the issue explosive, then as now. As Beals says, ""The people in the NAACP today who are saying "We don't want to integrate' have short memories. When you deny access to black people, do you seriously think they're going to go home and knit?'' The Little Rock nine didn't. Yet as we remember their accomplishments, the challenge for the next generation of Americans--black, white, Latin, Asian--is more elusive. It is, however, just as critical. They are the soldiers who will have to find the faith.

After 30 years of steady progress, especially in the Sourth, many public schools reverted to segregation in the last decade.

Southern separation; PERCENTAGE OF BLACK STUDENTS IN WHITE-MAJORITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN ALA., ARK., FLA., GA., LA., MISS., N.C., S.C., TENN., TEXAS, VA.

White enrollment in central-city schools; PERCENTAGE OF WHITES IN THE 10 LARGEST CENTRAL-CITY PUBLIC-SCHOOL DISTRICTS; 1994-95 RANKING

                  1968    1994-95     PCT. CHG.
Houston            53%       12%        -82%
Dallas             61        13         -81
Los Angeles        54        11         -80
Chicago            38        11         -79
Memphis            46        17         -68
Dade (Miami)       58        15         -65
New York           44        18         -64
Philadelphia       39        21         -61
San Diego          76        31         -61
Detroit            39         6         -10

SOURCES: HARVARD PROJECT ON SCHOOL DESCREGATIONS; 
RACIAL CHANGE AND DESEGREGATION IN LARGE 
SCHOOL DISTRICTS, NSBA