LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The Little Rock School District will allow the 30th anniversary of the 1957 desegregation crisisto pass without fanfare.
History has marked the crisis as a red-letter event in the continuing struggle toward equal rights for all. But it will be left to the NAACP to pay tribute to the nine black students who needed the protection of 1,100 American soldiers to enter the halls of Little Rock Central High School.
Everett Hawks, principal at Central for the past five years, said last week that an NAACP-sponsored commemoration, expected to reunite several members of the 'Little Rock Nine' on Oct. 23, is the only formal observance scheduled to be held at the historic high school.
Ironically, the aftershocks of 1957 now have school district officials preoccupied with a new desegregation crisis -- how to bring racial balance to a school system that became 70 percent black as busing for that purpose chased whites to the suburbs and private schools in the '70s and '80s.
Admittedly, many residents fail to see the point in dredging up the unpleasant memories every five years.
'Everything is fine,' Hawks told a caller last week.
'We're very proud of our school. Our students are proud about going here and the teachers are proud about teaching here. We don't have any more problems than any other school of our size. We are cognizant of our past and continually working to make things better.'
And there are signs of progress toward racial harmony in Arkansas and Little Rock generally and Central specifically:
-A school created under the latest desegregation plan was named in honor of Daisy Bates, the NAACP leader who sponsored, counseled and cried with the students who desegregated Central High.
-The auditorium at Central is named in honor of Roosevelt L. Thompson, a black student who served as president of the Central Student Council, edited the school newspaper, played on the football team and became a Presidential Scholar. Thompson was to have been the outstanding graduate of Yale University during his senior year, but, at age 22, he was killed on March 22, 1984, about three months before graduation, in an automobile accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. The Roosevelt Thompson Youth Award and a scholarship fund were established in his honor in his honor.
-The current president of the Little Rock School Board, W.D. Hamilton, is black, as were several of Hawks's predecessors's in the principal's job. The city of Little Rock, where blacks represent about 35 percent of the population, has its second black mayor, a woman named Lottie Shackelford.
-Gov. Orval E. Faubus, who rode the segregationist tide to an unprecedented six terms in the governor's office, was repudiated twice by Arkansas voters as he attempted to regain that position after losing it in 1966. Faubus was followed by a succession of governors viewed as moderate to liberal on civil rights matters -- Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor and Bill Clinton.
Both black and white educators are quick to describe today's Central High as a hotbed of racial understanding and academic achievement. Black graduates are among the school's most ardent cheerleaders.
But if Central's place in history is etched in stone, it's because President Dwight D. Eisenhower felt it necessary to dispatch federal troops to shepherd nine black students past a snarling mob of whites to desegregate the school. It was the first time since Reconstruction that federal troops had been used to keep the peace in any state.
Attempts have been made over the years to dismiss Eisenhower's action as an overreaction to an all-bark group of segregationist hotheads. That argument, however, is discounted by the fact that the state's highest officer, Gov. Faubus, fueled the crisis earlier by sending National Guard troops to the school to keep the blacks out.
Predicting that 'blood will run in the streets' if blacks entered Central High, the governor called out his militia on the night before school opened on Sept. 3, 1957.
Ernest Green, the first black graduate of Central, recently recalled his reaction to Faubus's notice of his intended action.
'That first day, we were all surprised,' said Green, the only senior among the nine black students.
'The governor announced the night before that he was calling out the National Guard, but we didn't really believe it, didn't want to believe it. Little Rock had an image as being a moderate Southern city and ... this was something we just didn't anticipate.'
Thirty years later, Faubus is unrepentant for his actions, largely, he insists, because there is nothing to be repentant for. He maintains that his actions should be remembered as those of a stabilizing force rather than a politically motivated pawn of segregationists.
'No matter what my critics say or infer -- that it was political - my objective was to save lives and prevent injury and property damage,' Faubus says, noting that nobody was killed during the crisis.
FBI files obtained in 1981 by the Arkansas Gazette, which won two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the crisis, suggested less noble reasons for Faubus's actions, mentioning, among other things, a concerted effort to put the clamps on 'integrationists and left-wingers.'
Faubus, now 77, still maintains that he was 'caught in the middle' as he tried to force the federal government to assume responsibility for enforcing its own court order.
'Then, as I watched the developments, it seemed very clear that the best way, the most effective way to maintain order at the time was to bar the black students from the school on a temporary basis,' he said in a recent interview.
The event that precipitated the crisis occurred four months before Faubus, a northwest Arkansas postmaster, became governor. In May 1954, the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, holding that maintaining separate schools for black and whites was unconstitutional.
The next year, the high court directed desegregation to proceed at the earliest possible date.
The Little Rock School Board agreed four days after the Brown decision to comply with the ruling and a year later adopted a plan calling for desegregation to begin at the high school level in 1957 - nine blacks would join 3,000 whites at Central -- and continue down through the lower grades over a six-year period.
The NAACP -- whose legal counsel included Thurgood Marshall, now a Supreme Court Justice, and Wiley Branton, now dean of the Howard University Law School in Washington -- challenged the plan as too deliberate, but it was upheld by the federal courts.
Then Faubus entered the picture. Based on his testimony that there would be violence if blacks were allowed to attend Central, an injunction against the desegregation plan was issued on Aug. 22, 1957, in Pulaski County Chancery Court. The injunction was lifted eight days later by federal Judge Ronald Davies of North Dakota, who was in Arkansas to help clear a backlog of cases.
Faubus, with the anti-integration laws to back him up, informed the state in a televised address on Sept. 2 that he intended to used National Guardsmen to keep the blacks out of Central, citing 'evidence of disorder and threats of disorder.'
The blacks were advisedby the school board to stay away from Central when school started the next day, but Davies ordered integration to begin on Sept. 4. The blacks tried to enter school on that day, but were turned away by the guard.
Bates recalls in her book, 'The Long Shadow of Little Rock,' that Faubus's speech sent the parents of the black students into a frenzy.
'They were confused, and they were frightened,' Bates wrote. 'As the parents voiced their fears, they kept repeating Governor Faubus's words that 'blood will run in the streets of Little Rock' should teenage children try to attend Central -- the school to which they had been assigned by the school board.'
On Sept. 3, Bates wrote, Superintendent Virgil Blossom advised black parents not to accompany their children to school the next day, saying it would be easier to protect them if they arrived alone. But, according to Bates, Blossom gave 'little assurance that the children would be adequately protected.'
After the blacks were turned away, Rep. Brooks Hays arranged a meeting between Faubus and Eisenhower at Newport, R.I., where the president was playing golf. But the meeting ended in a stalemate.
On Sept. 20, Davies ordered the guardsmen removed from the school. Faubus complied and three days later, the nine blacks dodged a group of about 1,000 angry whites and entered the school through a side door.
Once news reached the mob that they were inside, police barricades were almost overrun by the crowd and the blacks were asked to leave for their own safety.
Eisenhower, describing the mob as 'disgraceful,' sent in 1,100 riot-equipped troops from the elite 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., the next day and federalized the National Guard to remove it from Faubus's control. On Sept. 25, the troops escorted the blacks into the school for good.
On May 27, 1958, Ernest Green, 18, became the first black to graduate from the school. But the crisis was not over.
During the summer of 1958, Faubus used a new state law to shut down the Little Rock high schools, including Central, and they remained closed until a three-judge federal panel struck down the closing law the following June. The School Board decided to open the schools early, on Aug. 12, and after a rally by 1,000 whites on the steps of the state Capitol and a march from there to Central by about 200 of them, the schools remained open without major violence.
Was it all worth it?
'We have desegregation,' Bates says, 'but we have no integration. Students are sitting in the classrooms together. But as far as friendships or studying together, that's not happening.'
Green, the first black graduate of Central who now is an investment banker in Washington, speaks proudly of his role in the desegregation process.
'I think we had the view that this was an important issue and if we backed down there would be a move backward for lots of black people,' Green said.
Green sees the current black majority in the district as resulting from 'extensions of what began 30 years ago -- housing patterns, lack of job opportunities and a series of other things.'
'Until that gets resolved, you're going to always have an attempt to use the schools as a force for equity. We still have to keep the pressure on to make sure as many children as possible have the opportunity for a good education.'