Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Every American Should Visit Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

The United States Supreme Court, in its landmark decision in Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 mandated that public schools in the country could not be segregated.  It all gets back to the “separate but equal” clause in the often-trampled Constitution.   Despite word from the Supremes that segregation was no longer to be tolerated, knuckle-dragging Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus decided (over the disagreement of the Little Rock School Board) that Little Rock Central High School would not be integrated after nine black students registered for classes there in 1957. 

When the nine black students attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School (which was their right according to the Supremes) Governor Faubus activated the National Guard and made them block the school entrance to keep the black students out.  An outraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower (the last real Republican to be President) Federalized the National Guard and suddenly those same guardsmen who were keeping the students out of the school were protecting them as they tried to enter.

An oft-forgotten amendment to the US Constitution

In a response reminiscent of the protesters at the Democratic Convention in Chicago chanting “The whole world’s watching” the entire world was focused on the events unfolding in Little Rock.  Arkansas became the epitome of state resistance when the governor, Orval Faubus, directly questioned the authority of the federal court system and the validity of desegregation. The crisis at Little Rock's Central High School was the first fundamental test of the national resolve to enforce black civil rights in the face of massive resistance during the years following the Brown decision. As to whether Eisenhower's specific actions to enforce integration violated the Posse Comitatus Act, the Supreme Court, in Cooper v. Aaron (1958), indirectly affirmed the legality of his conduct, which was never, though, expressly reviewed.

In 1958, federal Judge Jesse Smith Henley of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, stating that integration had "broken down under the pressure of public opinion," suspended operation of the federal integration order until the 1960-61 school term. The school board said that it had faced large fees and could not afford to hire security guards to keep the peace in school.

The words of one of the Little Rock Nine

Eventually Little Rock Central High School along with every other public school in the country was integrated and for the most part the plan continues to work.  The Congress established the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, located directly across the street from the actual high school, to memorialize that historically important event.  I visited the National Historic Site the first time on May 20, 2000, when the visitor center was in an old (now preserved) Mobil gas station across the street from the school.  I returned on April 11, 2014 to a much improved and expanded visitor center at the corner of 14th and Cumberland near downtown Little Rock.

In typical National Park Service fashion they have produced a superb site for educating the public about the events of those long ago days.  Several dioramas are in place telling stories of the Little Rock Nine, there is a constantly running news clip from the day Eisenhower Federalized the National Guard, and there are reminders all over the building of how horribly white people treated (and often today continue to treat) black people.

One of many photos available in the National Historic Site that tell the story of that horrible period in American history. Although this little Hitler youth's sentiment is largely overshadowed today it is unfortunately not behind us. Places like the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site are excellent places to help bury that sentiment forever.

I spent about an hour at the National Historic Site before heading out to visit some National Wildlife Refuges in Arkansas.  As I departed I said to the person at the front desk that “everyone in this country needs to visit this site.”  And everyone in this country does.  

Perhaps if more people were slapped in the face with the reality of how black people were treated there wouldn’t be so much outward anger and hatred directed at folks who, just like white people, bleed red when our skin is cut.


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