Little Rock's Central High
by Michael Schuman
Little Rock action became landmark for civil rights supporters
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. Ð September marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important events in the history of the American civil rights movement. It was in 1957 that Little Rock's Central High School was ordered to abide by federal law and to integrate, and nine black students enrolled and entered classes there.
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 had outlawed school segregation. Still, there was mob violence. There were death threats.
"Just because the law changed doesn't mean everyone's minds changed," says National Park Service Ranger Spirit Trickey.
Those angry times are past, but, Ms. Trickey says, "The 50th anniversary is an opportunity to examine our shared history of the 1957 desegregation crisis."
Special events will include the opening of a permanent visitor center Sept. 24 and exhibition of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Clinton Library.
It also will be an opportunity to honor the Little Rock Nine, Ms. Trickey says.
The Little Rock crisis was precipitated by Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus' refusal to allow desegregation at Central High. Faubus ordered Arkansas National Guard troops to ensure that black students never entered.
In response, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to protect the black teens.
"When we step back and look at the events of 1957, they are something that seems unimaginable today," Ms. Trickey says.
The art deco and French Gothic building, once labeled by the American Institute of Architects as the "most beautiful high school in America," is still a functioning high school and is the keystone of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.
A service station across the street from the school became a media center in 1957 and has been the site's visitor center. The National Park Service refurbished the Magnolia Mobil station to look as it did in 1957.
Meanwhile, the service station offers commentary and news clips on period televisions. On one television, President Eisenhower tells the nation, "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts."
A timeline details the school year, 1957-58, from the first day when the Little Rock Nine were refused entry by Arkansas National Guard troops to May 25, 1958, when Ernest Green became the first black graduate of Central High.
Ms. Trickey said it isn't uncommon to encounter visitors with connections to Central High's dramatic events. One such visitor was Harold W. Bussabarger, a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division that protected the teens.
"We circled the school, and we formed a spearhead formation to break up the mobs," he recalled. "It was a big ordeal. It was scary. We heard all kinds of chants."
Ms. Trickey also has a connection. Her mother, Minnijean Brown, was one of the Little Rock Nine.
"I really make an effort to tell young people who my mother is because I think it gives the story more of a human connection," Ms. Trickey says.
Depending on the school schedule, walking tours may include the school building. Outdoors, the Central High Commemorative Garden is highlighted by nine trees and benches symbolizing the Little Rock Nine and two arches evoking the high school's facade.
Postscript: Eight of the nine students finished the 1957-58 school year at Central. All of the Little Rock Nine attended college; eight earned bachelor's degrees; four earned master's degrees. Their careers have been in fields such as real estate, government service, social activism and computer technology.
Today, the student body at Central High is 53 percent black, 44 percent white and 3 percent other races.
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