Little Rock Split as Historic Date Nears
50 years later, residents say integration fight still felt in ongoing struggles over leadership, direction of public schools.
Fifty years ago this month, nine black students walked through the doors of Little Rock Central High School, guarded by U.S. Army and National Guard troops dispatched to protect them from angry white residents protesting integration.
Now, Arkansas is inviting the world to turn its eyes to Little Rock—this time, to see how far the city has come since those turbulent days.
But while the commemorative activities go on, the school district itself is at the center of racial and power struggles. Roy G. Brooks, the black superintendent who riled the teachers’ union and earned the enmity of the black school board majority, was fired last month after months of controversy, with a $635,000 buyout cushioning his fall. Part of Mr. Brooks’ problem, say those who approved his ouster, was that he was abrasive toward members of the black community, and fired a number of black school employees.
Board Control Shifts
Supporters of the former superintendent, who include many white parents and the city’s predominantly white business establishment, have denounced the board’s action, saying that Mr. Brooks was doing a good job and that the board majority is steering the 26,600-student district into ruin. They say the firing was based more on concerns about lost patronage opportunities than on the quality of the education reforms Mr. Brooks initiated.
Members of the African-American community counter that the opposition is driven by whites’ dismay that, for the first time in the district’s history, they don’t control the school board. The board currently has four black and three white members.
Superintendents of large urban districts often run afoul of their school boards; the job is not known for being secure. Little Rock itself has had 13 permanent and interim superintendents since 1987. But the allegations of racism and favoritism that have swirled around the school board here in the past several months loom especially large during a time of celebrations intended to trumpet racial healing.
School board President Katherine Mitchell, who is black, said all the events just show how far the district has to go.
“It’s about race,” she said recently. “They”—the white establishment in the city—“don’t want to acknowledge that it is race. Things are not much better. And it’s really made people aware of the fact that we haven’t gotten that far along.”
H. Baker Kurrus, a white school board member, strongly disagrees. “Most urban districts have not done nearly as well as Little Rock,” he said.
The enrollment of the Little Rock district is 24 percent white, which reflects relatively high diversity compared with other Southern urban districts. In the similarly sized Birmingham, Ala., district, for example, only about 1 percent of the students are white.
Residents of different races continue to care deeply about the public school system, Mr. Kurrus said.
“People have reached across racial lines for years here over the schools. They said, ‘We’re not going to give in to the worst of our nature.’ But that story is underreported, because it doesn’t make much of a headline to say people are working together,” said Mr. Kurrus, an executive with Winrock Group Inc., a local holding company.
Still, the symbolic importance of Little Rock in the nation’s troubled racial history is one of the reasons the problems in the district are so intense, said Bernadette Turner, the black president of the Little Rock Parent Teacher Association Council. She had a cordial relationship with the former superintendent, but knew of others who did not. She said she knows white parents who dismiss the district schools for their children without even visiting them, and black parents who counter talk of change with “we can’t do that.”
“I believe the crisis from ’57 still has a hold on the minds of some of the people here,” Ms. Turner said. The debate over Mr. Brooks started almost from the time he was hired in 2004, after 30 years in the 174,000-student Orange County, Fla., district. He retired from that Orlando-area district as an area superintendent overseeing 29 schools and about 30,000 students.
The crisis in the Little Rock, Ark., school district in 1957 “was the first fundamental test of the United States’ resolve to enforce African-American civil rights,” according to the National Park Service. At its heart was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision three years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which found that separate educational facilities for black and white students were inherently unequal.
Fifty years ago this month, nine black students attempted to enroll in the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School, but were prevented by Gov. Orval Faubus, who ordered the Arkansas National Guard to stop the students from entering. In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the state’s National Guard and also sent U.S. Army troops to ensure the students could enter the city’s largest high school safely.
The city is marking the 50th anniversary of the school’s desegregation with several events, including an ecumenical service, a commemorative ceremony on school grounds, and the opening of a new interactive museum run by the National Park Service.
The school-based ceremony will be held Sept. 25, the day the “Little Rock Nine,” under the protection of federal troops, spent a full school day in the classrooms of Central High.
In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette soon after his hiring, Mr. Brooks said: “We are saying that we expect results and we expect a high level of performance. Those people, including me, who can’t deliver, maybe we will have to find something else to do.” Mr. Brooks declined to comment for this story. In hiring Mr. Brooks, the board passed over Morris Holmes, a black former principal of Little Rock Central High who was serving as the interim superintendent in the district.
Mr. Holmes was “remarkable,” said Cathy Koehler, the president of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
“He made everyone in the district feel valued,” said Ms. Koehler, who is white. “And they didn’t even give the man the courtesy of an interview.”
Mr. Brooks was perceived as being quickly embraced by the city’s business leaders, who wanted to see more changes intended to improve schools, including merit pay for teachers. Mr. Brooks supported those efforts. He also created a plan for streamlining the administrative staff in the central office.
Ms. Mitchell, an education professor at Philander Smith College in Little Rock and a school board member for 19 years, took a dim view of the changes. She abstained from the vote to hire Mr. Brooks, and she was the lone vote against his restructuring plan. Later, Ms. Mitchell said that black employees were disproportionately bearing the brunt of the efforts to trim the administrative staff. Under the changes, she asserts, black employees lost $918,000 worth of salary, while white employees lost $28,000.
Mr. Brooks’ interactions with the board also became an issue. Ms. Mitchell said she found him “disrespectful.” He talked down to black parents, she said, but was considered more conciliatory toward white parents. Mr. Kurrus said that the school board was faced with the hard decision of making cuts, and that the reductions were necessary. “The issue was not the superintendent,” he said.
“The issue that remains is, if this board is going to be able to focus on student learning, even when it’s hard on adults. When we tried to become more efficient, it’s a huge human cost. And it’s real. But that’s an issue boards everywhere are facing.”
Mr. Brooks pushed ahead with his agenda until last fall’s school board election.
For the first time, Little Rock voters chose a majority-black school board. Some of the new members, backed by the teachers’ union and community activists, defeated candidates who had been supported by business interests.
“The chamber of commerce was really heavy-handed,” said Max Brantley, the editor of the Arkansas Times, an independent city weekly, and a longtime political observer. “But, big surprise, the other folks won two out of three seats.”
In October, Ms. Mitchell was chosen as board president. Moves to fire Mr. Brooks started soon after.
The board majority planned a termination meeting for Mr. Brooks this past May. The legal wrangling escalated to a fever pitch, with the editorial board of the the Democraty-Gazette referring to the black board majority as “the Gang of Four” and a “lynching party.”
After fierce, public debates, the school board voted 4-3 in May to buy out Mr. Brooks’ contract rather than go through a termination proceeding and risk litigation. His last day was Aug. 23.
Terence L. Bolden, a black community activist, said the only reason the firing drew deep opposition, unlike the dismissals of other superintendents over the years, was the new makeup of the board. The white community is the one playing the “race card,” he said.
“There is no doubt in my mind. Individuals who are used to being in power have a difficult time not being in power,” Mr. Bolden said.
But others, like Jay Chesshir, the president and chief executive officer of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, say they are frustrated by the allegations of racism against white members of the community.
“I’m sick and tired of race being an excuse, when in reality, race is a crutch,” said Mr. Chesshir, who is white. “It’s not about race, it’s about quality.”
And ultimately, he said, if a majority of parents decide the Little Rock district is not for them because of the turmoil, the entire city will suffer. “That’s what’s important,” he said. “We sometimes get mired with who’s on first, and we forget where home base is.”
The tension here has scarcely eased since Mr. Brooks’ departure.
The board split again over what salary to pay his replacement. Black members argued successfully that Linda Watson, the longtime district administrator taking over as interim superintendent, should be given a salary and benefits package similar to what Mr. Brooks received. Ms. Watson will be paid about $168,000, plus a $20,000 annuity. The white board members argued for a smaller package.
Meanwhile, the board is also fighting over a long-running desegregation lawsuit. Though a federal court recently released the district from court-supervised monitoring, the board voted 4-3 in July to enter into mediation with the lawyer representing the plaintiffs. The black majority says the district still has to do more work on desegregation.
The white minority on the board says such negotiations would be a waste of money. The board’s decision got the attention of Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, and the state attorney general, who said they were concerned with the board’s actions in a case many had regarded as settled.
“We’re discussing with the attorney general what the ramifications are to make sure the state’s interests are protected,” Gov. Beebe told the Associated Press the day after the board’s vote.
Sen. Jim Argue, a Democrat and the chairman of the state Senate’s education committee, said both sides in the struggle are showing “an utter lack of leadership skills.”
He dreams of seeing the district led by a dynamic community leader who is able to reach out to both races and knit them together, while improving academic performance in the district. Those roles may be impossible to find in one person, he said.
“I’m hard-pressed to imagine it happening with this board,” said Mr. Argue, who is white.
While the wrangling continues, Little Rock Central High School Principal Nancy Rousseau is resolutely determined to keep any signs of the political struggles among school leaders out of her 2,400-student school.
Because it is part of a national historic site run by the National Park Service, the school appears the same on the outside as it did in grainy newsreels from five decades ago, when rifle-bearing soldiers shielded black students from white protesters.
The foyer of the pillar-fronted structure includes memorabilia from those first black students, known here simply as “the Nine.” Now, the school is about 53 percent black, said Ms. Rousseau, who is white. The Nine will be back for a Sept. 25 celebration at the school. Former President Bill Clinton, a son of Arkansas, is slated to be on hand, along with other dignitaries.
“I’m disappointed that during this historic time, we have a focus in our community that is negative,” Ms. Rousseau said. “But for us to get involved in the politics would be such a distraction. This is divisive to our community. But it’s not divisive to the school—that’s our charge.”
Vol. 27, Issue 04, Pages 1,14-15