Forty years ago last week, nine black teenagers walked through the doors of Little Rock, Ark.'s Central High School for the first time. To ensure their protection, federal troops with bayonets escorted the youngsters through angry mobs.
Today, black students walk through the same doors and share the space with their white peers every school day without the tension and threats of 1957.
But that doesn’t mean the fight for integration of Central High and the rest of the nation’s schools is over, President Clinton told students there last Thursday in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the first day of school for the students known as the Little Rock Nine.
“Today, children of every race walk through the same door, but then they often walk down different halls,” Mr. Clinton said.
“Not only in this school, but across America, they sit in different classrooms, they eat at different tables. They even sit in different parts of the bleachers at the football game.”
Throughout the nation, the president added, many minority students don’t even have the opportunity to attend schools with white classmates.
The lesson for the students is that the fight for a color-blind society is not over, Mr. Clinton said.
More Work To Do
One example of a place where work needs to be done may be Little Rock itself.
Schools in the state’s capital city and its surrounding county have been under the supervision of a federal court since 1982.
The settlement of a desegregation lawsuit involving the city and county schools created magnet schools, leading to about half of the city’s 24,400 students being bused to school, according to Don R. Roberts, the interim superintendent of the Little Rock district.
Overall, about half of the city’s children are white, but only one-third of the city’s total public school enrollment is Caucasian.
Those numbers are the same as the findings of a recent report that found the separation of races increasing in the nation’s schools.
In 1994, the average black child attended a school where 33.9 percent of the students were white. That percentage was 36.2 percent 14 years earlier, according to a report released earlier this year. (“U.S. Schools Lapsing Into ‘Resegregation,’ Orfield Warns,” April 16, 1997.)
In another reflection of a national trend, Little Rock’s schools also place a disproportionately high number of white children in advanced courses, Mr. Roberts said.
“There’s more to do, but I don’t think there’s any intent to harm anyone,” he said.
“The culture has changed” in the past 40 years, Mr. Roberts said.
The city plans to submit a plan to the court this fall that would lead to its release from court supervision in three years, Mr. Roberts said.
To solve the nation’s “resegregation” problem, Mr. Clinton promised to use the strong arm of the federal government.
“We know when the constitutional rights of our citizens are threatened, the national government must guarantee them,” Mr. Clinton said in his speech last week, one of a series in his initiative to promote a “conversation” about the nation’s racial divisions.
“Talk is fine, but when they are threatened, you need strong laws faithfully enforced and upheld by independent courts.”
One prominent civil rights activist said he welcomed the president’s focus on the issue, but wants a promise that Mr. Clinton will wield his executive powers to reverse the lost ground for integration.
“My question is: Will he follow this up by directing the Department of Justice to resist efforts to dismantle desegregation?” said William L. Taylor, a Washington lawyer, who worked on the Little Rock Nine’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court after federal courts approved the school board’s plan to move them to a segregated high school in the fall of 1958.
The Supreme Court overruled the lower courts in an unusual summer session.
Mr. Taylor also said that the president should use his authority under the federal Title I program, which aids schools with high proportions of disadvantaged students, to allow children to transfer out of schools that are not demonstrating students’ academic progress.
While Mr. Clinton briefly mentioned the enforcement steps he would take, he spent more time urging the students in the audience to take responsibility for their own actions.
“All of us should embrace the vision of a color-blind society, but recognize the fact that we are not there yet and we cannot slam shut the doors of educational and economic opportunity,” he said.