HBO documentary: Civil rights lessons of Central High come slowly

September 24, 2007 2 min read

LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Fifty years after nine black teenagers made civil rights history with the integration of Little Rock Central High School, a new HBO documentary that premieres Tuesday asks the question: Why hasn’t the country come farther along in race relations?

Craig and Brent Renaud, award-winning filmmakers who grew up in Little Rock, spent months last year capturing the lives of students, teachers and school staff members at the still “segregated” school, where blacks are now the majority.

Fifty years ago, the so-called Little Rock Nine were heckled, spit on and threatened by white segregationists before they integrated Central on Sept. 25, 1957. Army paratroopers escorted them from class to class.

Now, the screaming white mobs and the violence are a painful memory. But there are lessons still to be learned, and many are frustrated and disappointed by the slow progress.

Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine featured in the film, points out a class at Central High where the blacks are seated on one side of the room and the whites on the other.

“Imagine just for the heck of it, imagine what it feels like for a veteran of the civil rights movement to sit here and watch this class configure itself,” she says. “We still line up on two sides of color, and if we keep on saying and talking about it and doing the same things that we’ve been doing forever, we’re going to stay the same. And I’m really sorry for us.”

“Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later” airs at 7 p.m. CST Tuesday. Students provide blunt accounts of present-day Central and their own lives, their plain language and directness telling the story.

Principal Nancy Rousseau describes the school’s success in offering Advanced Placement classes and sending graduates to prestigious colleges. But the large majority of those students are white. At lunch, the black students eat in the cafeteria; the whites eat outside.

The students represent both ends of the spectrum. The whites drive cars to school and come from well-off families. The blacks take the school bus or live in the run-down neighborhoods surrounding Central. Some of them have children of their own and will be the first in their families to graduate from high school. Many can say a friend or family member has been killed in a violent crime.

Although Craig graduated from Central 15 years ago and Brent attended Hall High School, they tried not to have any assumptions.

“Whatever somebody’s story is and the way they tell it to us is how we’re going to put it in the film,” Craig said.

With that approach, the one-hour documentary shines light on a hidden racial divide that lacks the hatred of the past but is taken for normal.

“Ultimately, we’re still segregated enough that we don’t know each other’s stories,” Brent said.


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