Going Back to Little Rock


USA Today has a moving story commemorating the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School:

Of all the images of the civil rights movement, one of the most chilling is a photo of a black teenager in a shirtwaist dress and sunglasses walking through a screaming white mob. Since it was taken Sept. 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford has been the face of the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School.

Most of the story focuses on a less-publicized incident that took place months after the school was integrated. Fed up with continuing harassment from white students, 16-year-old Minnijean Brown, one of just nine blacks in the school, "accidentally on purpose" spilled chili on a white student and was eventually expelled from Central.

The schlamozzel in this racial drama, Dent Gitchel, tells USAT:

…the incident led him to consider his place in the "parallel universes" that whites and blacks inhabited. "All this stuff was swirling around me," he recalls. "I was bewildered by what was going on."

Gitchel, then a junior, wound up missing his senior year after Gov. Orval Faubus ordered Little Rock's four high schools closed for the 1958-59 school year rather than continue to integrate them. Gitchel never got his high school diploma but passed special entrance exams to attend college. He went on to teach law at the University of Arkansas.

The year 1957 was, he says, "the year I really started thinking."…

Through [the furor surrounding integration], Gitchel recalls, he did nothing. "I just wanted to get along with my life. I didn't say anything or do anything," he says…. "I wish today that I had had the insight or courage. I wish I had reached out and taken a stand."

Brown and Gitchel got back in touch with one another two years ago and will serve as judges for a charity chili cookoff of all things.

The article takes the measure of the progress (and limits) of race relations over the past half-century:

One of the nation's best public high schools –Newsweek ranks it 26th—Central still has problems: Advanced placement classes remain mostly white. Black students lag in test scores. And although interviews with students reveal more acceptance of other races and ethnic groups, Principal Nancy Rousseau says there's room for improvement. "Kids tend to gravitate" to kids like themselves, she says. "They do segregate themselves at lunch."

Whole thing here.