Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ruby Bridges in 1960

Fifty-four years ago yesterday, six year-old Ruby Bridges played a dramatic role in the desegregation of American schools. Speaking of this event, Ms. Bridges lamented the continuing de facto segregation of American schools "How did we integrate schools back in the 1960s? If those people did it back then, I can't understand why we can't do it today for the betterment of a community or for a society," she exclaimed.

After having studied the question of school desegregation for some years, my response would be that there is a vast difference between opening up schools to students regardless of race and trying to use the law to determine racial compositions by command and control.  Now that we do have over a half century of experience, we can move beyond politically correct pieties and look at what actually happened in school districts during the desegregation era. In districts around the country, command and control desegregation approaches were followed by three outcomes: the abandonment of urban school public schools, suburbanization, and/or increases in private school enrollments. School desegregation was not the only factor in population shifts, since immigration, particularly of Hispanic populations, increasingly changed the racial/ethnic make-up of districts in ways that could not be controlled by governmental authorities. However, as we saw in case after case in the school districts in the previous chapter, it was simply futile and pretentious to assume that courts and planners can redistribute populations at will.

I’ll start looking at different districts by beginning with some of the supposed “success stories” of school desegregation, looking first at one of the oldest and most celebrated cases, that of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Little Rock Central High
               Little Rock was one of the earliest and most celebrated of American desegregation cases. It began before governmental attempts to redistribute students, when the goal was still to simply enable black students to enjoy the legal right to enroll in schools near their own homes. After the Supreme Court made its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it appeared as if Little Rock schools would quietly follow the orders of the Supreme Court.

               On May 22, 1954, the Little Rock school board announced that it would comply with the Supreme Court order as soon as the Court established a method and a schedule for desegregation. A year later, in May 1955, the Little Rock school board voted to adopt a policy of gradual desegregation to start in 1957. Under the plan devised by School Superintendent Virgil Blossom, Little Rock would first integrate the city’s Central High School, and then gradually integrate lower grades.

               The crisis broke out in 1957, the year that the school board had hoped to manage the quiet admission of a few African American pupils into white schools. Seventeen students were selected to be the first to break down the racial lines, but only nine of them decided to go ahead and enroll. Just before the beginning of the school year, on August 27, the Little Rock’s Mothers League sought an injunction to halt integration.

               The injunction was granted by Pulaski County Chancellor Murray Reed, but it was rejected three days later by Federal District Judge Ronald Davies. The enrollment of the African American students might still have proceeded in a relatively peaceful manner if the governor had not used the situation for political advantage. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus was searching for political support to win a third term in office.

               Governor Faubus decided that he could appeal to whites eager to preserve segregation. He declared that he would not be able to maintain order if Central High School were integrated, and on September 2 he ordered the National Guard to surround the school. His stand drew public attention to the situation and attracted white segregationist mobs into the streets. The next day, Judge Davies ordered that the integration of Central should continue.

               The NAACP, under the local leadership of Daisy Bates, organized the African American students slated to enroll in Central High to arrive in a group. They were met by National Guardsmen who turned the students away with bayonets. One of the students arrived after the others and was confronted by screaming segregationists.

               Television, which occupied a central place in most American homes by 1957, broadcast the scenes from Little Rock around the nation. On September 20, Judge Davies ruled that Governor Faubus had misused the National Guard to prevent integration and forbade the Guard’s employment in this way. Faubus then replaced the Guard with local police. The nine black students entered Central High School through a side door on September 23. As they made their way into the school, an unruly mob of over one thousand people massed on the streets outside.

               President Dwight D. Eisenhower met with Governor Faubus on September 14. Although the president believed that the governor had agreed to allow school integration to continue, it soon became evident that Governor Faubus had no such intention. Alarmed by the developments in his city, on September 24 Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann asked President Eisenhower for federal troops to maintain order.

               Eisenhower responded by sending 1,000 troops of the 101st Airborne and then placing the Arkansas National Guard under Federal control. The troops escorted the nine students to the school each day. Some Americans were shocked to see that military protection was needed to guarantee the basic rights of citizens. Others were disturbed at what they believed was a federal military occupation of a state, reviving historical memories of the military occupation of the South during Reconstruction, in the years following the Civil War.

               The struggle continued even after the mobs in front of Central returned to their homes and jobs. On February 8, 1958, after several angry confrontations with white students, one of the nine, Minnijean Brown, was suspended for the rest of the year for dumping a bowl of chili on her white antagonists. Shortly after, the school board asked the federal court for a delay of the integration order until the concept of “all deliberate speed” was defined. The delay was granted in June and then reversed in August. In the meantime, the first African American student graduated from Central in May.

               At the opening of the 1958-59 school year, Governor Faubus ordered Little Rock public schools closed, and white students enrolled in private schools or in other districts. On September 27, 1958, Little Rock voters overwhelmingly rejected school integration. However, on June 18, 1959 a federal court declared that Little Rock’s public school closing was unconstitutional. Little Rock schools opened a month early for the 1959-60 school year and enrolled African American and white students.

               Eventually, Little Rock calmed down, and for many Central High School became a story of the success of school integration. After opening its doors to students from all backgrounds, Central went on to become something of a showcase. In 1982, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that Central was the best school in Arkansas, and that it had proved the critics of integration wrong. With a student population that was 53% black, it had 14 National Merit semifinalists, and one of its black students had made the highest score ever recorded in Arkansas on the National Merit examination. [i]

While there is a great deal of truth to the success story, a realistic view will acknowledge that the success was not quite as clear and unblemished as sometimes claimed. In the decades after the Little Rock crisis, both the school district and Central High increasingly became concentrations of minority students. When President Bill Clinton made a celebrated visit to Central High in 1997, the year that the Little Rock school district was finally removed from court supervision, that formerly all-white school was about two-thirds black, and was heavily segregated internally

“Despite their overall numbers,” observed The Washington Post during President Clinton’s visit, “African Americans occupy just 13 percent of the seats in advanced classes and, in general, they tend to score worse, drop out more often, and draw more discipline than their white classmates.”[ii] The national newspaper USA Today, reporting on continuing controversies over school segregation in Little Rock, observed in September 2011 that many Little Rock schools remained segregated. USA Today wrote that “achieving racial balance is becoming more difficult as families leave the suburbs that supply white students to majority-black neighborhoods.”

The newspaper quoted U.S. District Judge Brian Miller as saying that schools with minority students were plagued by low achievement and discipline problems.[iii] In the 2012-2013 school year, 66% of all the students in the Little Rock School District were black. More than two-thirds of Little Rock students were below the poverty level, as measured by free and reduced lunch eligibility.[iv]

After the heroic struggles of black citizens to integrate Central in the 1950s, the most satisfying conclusion would be one of unqualified triumph. In a world that rarely follows the plots of good stories, though, the evaluation of events in Little Rock must be more measured. Simply striking down the barriers forbidding black students from enrolling in a local school did give them greater access to educational opportunities. This did not destroy Central as an educational institution, but it also did not create ideal racial balances in the school or eliminate substantial segregation at the classroom level.

Did the desegregating school districts that followed Little Rock, and which generally aimed at explicitly engineering racial balances, meet with better outcomes? Over the next few days, I’ll look some of the supposed “success stories” that followed Little Rock.

[i]Rone Tempest, “Troubled Arkansas School Becomes Best in State,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1982, 1.
[ii] Peter Baker, “40 Years Later, 9 Are Welcomed,” Washington Post, September 26, 1997, A1+. Quotation taken from p. A9.
[iii]USA Today. “Little Rock Desegregation Plans Go Back to Court,” USA Today, September 18, 2011, accessed December 12, 2013,
[iv] Richard D. Kahlenberg. A Report to the Little Rock School District on Using Student Socioeconomic Status in the Inter-district Remedy for Little Rock School District v. Pulaski County Special School District. August 9, 2013.

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