When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregated education was unconstitutional, segregationists rallied to maintain separate schools. In Little Rock, Arkansas—and in other communities throughout the South—well-heeled whites established a chapter of the White Citizens’ Council to intimidate black parents and pressure white elected officials into blocking desegregation efforts. They succeeded in winning over Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who ignited the Little Rock school desegregation crisis in September 1957 by sending the Arkansas National Guard to the city’s flagship white secondary school, Central High School.
“The mission of the State Militia is to maintain or restore order and to protect the lives and property of citizens,” insisted Faubus the day before school started. “They will act not as segregationists or integrationists, but as soldiers called to active duty to carry out their assigned tasks.” But the actions of the soldiers, who did nothing to disperse a furious mob of whites, exposed the governor’s claims as false, making clear that he had sent them solely to prevent nine black students from registering for classes.
The governor’s blatant disregard for the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court compelled President Dwight D. Eisenhower to act. With great reluctance, the president federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent paratroopers from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the Little Rock Nine to and from school and between classes.
Sixty years later, Central High is nothing like it once was. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Today, it is an exemplar of school integration. The student demographic closely reflects the community’s population, and student success belies the myths often used to justify segregation.
But Central High School, unfortunately, is unlike most schools across the country, which remain rigidly segregated by race. It is even unlike most schools in the Little Rock School District, which was taken over by the state in 2015 because of problems stemming directly from the persistence of segregation.
The reason for Central High School’s success is no mystery. It is the result of several decades of intense grassroots organizing in the face of extreme resistance to school desegregation, resistance that continues to keep schools in Arkansas (and just about everywhere else in the country) largely segregated by race. The history of Central High is, therefore, a blueprint for change, a roadmap pointing the way toward better schools and a more hopeful future.
Historical Resistance to Desegregation
While Eisenhower’s bold move ended riotous behavior on the part of white protesters outside Central High School, it did not keep white students from violently harassing the black students attempting to learn inside. It also did nothing to keep white elected officials from continuing to fight school desegregation. In a move as daring as the president’s, Governor Faubus—acting under new authority granted to him by the state legislature—closed all of the public high schools in Little Rock for the 1958–1959 school year, a period that came to be known as the “Lost Year.”
The coalition of black activists, lawyers, businesspeople, parents and students who had led the initial school desegregation charge eventually forced the reopening of Little Rock’s public schools. However, segregated education persisted. The city’s gradual desegregation plan meant that only seven black students attended Central High School that year. At the same time, increasing numbers of white parents pulled their children out of the public school system, sending them instead to one of the growing number of private white academies that had sprung up since the school desegregation crisis began.
The pace of school desegregation picked up over the next few years, spurred in large part by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and federal court orders requiring compliance with Brown. Still, it remained painfully slow. Feeble desegregation plans compelling students to choose which schools to attend prolonged segregated education by placing the burden of desegregation on black families.
When given the option, white families never chose to send their children to historically all-black schools. Most continued to balk at desegregation, vehemently opposing any and all efforts, such as busing, designed to diversify student populations. They also continued to leave public schools for the rapidly expanding network of private white schools, such as Heritage Christian School, which, according to its founding pastor, was established “to combat the ‘moral pollution’ in public schools.”
Despite the slow pace of progress, proponents of school desegregation kept fighting for change. They knew that segregated schools created unequal opportunities and perpetuated racial hierarchies. They also understood that desegregated schools provided access to the best available educational resources, reduced racial prejudice and increased comfort with diversity.
Their determination paid off. In recent years, Little Rock Central’s student population has been 58 percent black, 30 percent white, 8 percent Asian and 4 percent Hispanic; the school has also been among Arkansas’ best performing in terms of graduation rates and achievement on standardized tests. “This is my school,” said black student Malik Marshall a few years back when he was enrolled there. “I love it here.”
But things have been far from perfect at Central. “We’re desegregated,” said Marshall, referring to the fact that racial divisions were plain to see inside the school. “We’re not integrated because integration comes from the heart of the people that go here. … It’s something that you have to want to do,” he added.
Desegregation, though, is the necessary starting point for integration, and few schools have made this long, arduous journey as successfully. The question, then, is why is Central High such an anomaly?
Beyond Central High
By almost every measure, segregated education has been spreading and deepening. Researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project have found that over the last 25 years, “intensely segregated nonwhite schools with zero to 10 percent white enrollment have more than tripled.” Indeed, fully one-third of African-American and Latino students now attend such schools. Making matters worse, these schools tend to serve communities with high poverty levels, isolating resource-poor students. Not surprisingly, this kind of racial and economic segregation produces low student performance.
Desegregated schools provided access to the best available educational resources, reduced racial prejudice and increased comfort with diversity.
It is no mystery why segregated education has persisted in most places and has gotten worse in others. Above all else, racism and poverty have bedeviled desegregation efforts. A recent report on the state of public education published by the Government Accountability Office found, “While much has changed in public education in the decades following this landmark decision and subsequent legislative action, research has shown that some of the most vexing issues affecting children and their access to educational excellence and opportunity today are inextricably linked to race and poverty.”
In the South
In the deepest parts of Dixie, in small towns and rural communities, opposition to school desegregation by white elected officials has endured. In Cleveland, Mississippi, a town of 12,000 in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, a federal district court ruled in 2016 that the school board had been intentionally operating a dual education system based on race for the past 50 years by maintaining an all-black middle school and high school on the African-American side of town, and a historically white middle school and high school on the white side. The court ordered the immediate consolidation of the schools so that student population ratios would be nearly identical to that of Little Rock’s Central High.
Beyond the South
Outside the South, where federal courts have been far less involved, segregated education has proven equally intractable. In fact, major metropolitan areas like New York City now have the ignominious distinction of setting the standard for school segregation. To a great extent, this reflects patterns of residential housing segregation, arrangements created by racially discriminatory local, state and federal housing, and urban planning policies dating back to the New Deal. Housing and urban planning policies have historically been designed to preserve and promote segregated schools. But the persistence of segregated education outside the South also reflects educational policies—such as New York City’s eighth-grade school choice plan—that have concentrated students in intensely segregated schools.
Regardless of region, opposition to integrated schools by white families has not only made it difficult to desegregate schools but also seemingly impossible to maintain integrated ones. White families continue to leave desegregated public schools for white private schools and relocate to communities, usually in the suburbs, that still have nearly all-white public schools.
“If parents can’t get over race or class, they’re not going to put their kids in our schools,” explained Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of the Dallas, Texas, school system, which is 93 percent African American and Latino and more than 90 percent low income. And this reality is important: “Every major city in America has to find some way to deal with this issue,” Hinojosa added. “When you have a mix of kids, the affluent kids don’t suffer and the children of intergenerational poverty do better.”
Remedying school segregation has become substantially more difficult in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court is no longer an ally in the struggle to desegregate the nation’s schools, having invalidated voluntary school desegregation plans in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, in 2007 because the plans considered race in pupil assignments—which is, quite obviously, the simplest and surest way to guarantee racially diverse schools. Neither is the U.S. Department of Education under the Trump Administration, which has already defunded “Open Doors, Expanding Opportunities,” a grant program that provided school districts with up to $12 million to improve socio-economic diversity within their schools. Republican state legislatures have also proven unfriendly to desegregation efforts by promoting school voucher programs that The Century Foundation has found “serve a disproportionate percentage of white and wealthy students.”
The Way Forward
Although ending school segregation is clearly a complicated goal with many obstacles, it is far from impossible. Parental choice is important, but it must be controlled as it is in Louisville so white people cannot choose their way out of desegregation. And choice must be granted early. Starting in the eighth grade is eight grades too late. Special-emphasis schools should be used to attract college-educated, middle- and upper-income white families back to the public schools, as is being done in Dallas, but not at the expense of African-American, Latino and lower-income students, who gain no benefit if displaced. And socio-economic criteria should figure prominently in pupil-placement formulas, a shift that has proven effective in maintaining racially diverse schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina.
Fully desegregating the nation’s public schools will be neither quick nor easy. “We live in a complex multiracial society with woefully inadequate knowledge and little support for constructive policies geared toward equalizing opportunity, raising achievement and high school completion rates for all groups, and helping students learn how to live and work successfully in a society composed of multiple minorities,” explains Myron Orfield, the Director of the Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity.
The fact that there will be resistance and setbacks, both locally and nationally, is a crucial lesson learned from the school desegregation struggle at Little Rock’s Central High School. But the fight for educational equality that has taken place at Central over the last 60 years also teaches us that school desegregation is possible and, when achieved, benefits everyone. Indeed, Little Rock is an essential reminder of how far the nation has come since nine black students needed members of the 101st Airborne to escort them to school. It is an equally important reminder of how far the nation has to go before all students, regardless of race or income, have equal access to quality education.
Jeffries is an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University.
Teach and learn about the struggle to integrate Central High School with video clips of Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, and with accompanying lessons and texts.