At the sixth hour, the earth shook and the wind cried;
At the seventh hour, the hidden seed was sown;
At the eighth hour, it gave up the ghost and died.
At the ninth hour, they sealed up the tomb;
And the earth was then silent for the space of three hours.
But at the twelfth hour, a single lily from the gloom
Shot forth, and was followed by a whole host of flowers". --John Gould Fletcher
In the late 1950s, Little Rock, Arkansas became one of the first cities in the south to implement public school integration. The move to integrate schools came in the wake of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and a subsequent determination that rather than being more or less instant, school integration would be implemented with "all deliberate speed".
When the Little Rock school district sought to integrate by permitting nine African-American children to attend Central High School in 1957, in response to pressure created through litigation filed against the school, opposition to the plan arose.
When the Little Rock Nine, as they came to be called, first attended the school, they were met with
open hostility by a mob outside the school, and also reported ill treatment by some students inside the school. The Arkansas Governor was Orval Faubus, an odd populist raised by folks from the socialist tradition. Governor Faubus was anything but progressive on the subject of school integration. Like many southern politicians, he cemented his appeal to white rural folks through his opposition to school integration. Governor Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard, which promptly prevented the nine children from attending Central High School, in the name of "preventing unrest".
As Faubus' actions violated a federal court order regarding integration, President Eisenhower federalized the local national guard, and called up 1,000 troops from the crack military unit, the army's 101st Airborne Division. These soldiers ensured that the schools remained open, and ensured that the children could attend the school. Although some incidents marred the first year, the school completed the 1957 school year integrated in part. Eight of the nine children completed the year (the ninth, irritated with what she perceived as harassment, did not complete the year). These children were aided and supported by Daisy Bates, a local African-American activist who understood how important it was for integration to succeed. But Governor Faubus was not finished with his resistance.
The Arkansas legislature, at Faubus' urging, passed a law which permitted the Governor to order any school closed rather than permit integration. Faubus ordered the Little Rock schools closed for the 1958
school year. Students had to seek alternative education, as no public schools existed in Little Rock for that school year.
The movement to reverse this unjust situation came in two forms--court litigation and a movement to
reopen the schools. One of the leaders of Little Rock's "Committee to Reopen Our Schools" was Adolphine Fletcher Terry. Ms. Terry, in her seventies, was perhaps an unlikely candidate for the role of anti-segregation activist. It's not that she lacked for activist spirit. She had been a force behind the movement to open a separate juvenile court in Arkansas, and a tireless advocate of free public libraries.
Rather, she was part of "Little Rock society", a society that, with exceptions, had not shown itself enlightened on the integration question. Ms. Terry's brother, the imagist poet John Gould Fletcher,
had written in favor of vocational education for African-Americans, but had actually suggested that higher education, though within the intellectual capacity of African-Americans, was not practical because it was an area intended for "gentlemen" (in so doing, Fletcher showed how what sounds like a clever way to dig at higher education can, with hindsight, come off as simple racism).
Yet Ms. Terry, along with two other local folks, started the Committee to Reopen Our Schools, which
had an impact in helping get Little Rock out of the grip of the segregation forces. Also, the local liberal newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette, advocated school integration. The tide began to turn. By 1959, the courts had ruled Faubus' law unconstitutional, and through the 1960s, integration began. Integration was not fully implemented until 1972. Central High has progressed so that some consider it a model of integration.
Race and class issues still affect our schools, but in more subtle ways. School districts now integrate as a matter of policy, but schools with larger minority populations fail to get the funding they need per pupil to fully achieve. Many urban inner city school districts are afflicted by bloated administration that cannot get books to students. Students are sold down the river by schools that more or less give up on them, assuming that kids cannot achieve because of their background.
The current situation, in which education is unequal and to some extent separate in fact, rather than by law, still requires the effort of folks to seek equality. Even as the survivors among the Little Rock Nine are in late middle age, kids still get a raw deal in public education if they happen to attend school in a poorer district. In our local area, court decisions to equalize school funding are under perpetual threat of being watered down by monied suburbanites who give campaign donations to public officials they perceive to be willing to reinstate an unequal funding arrangement.
Although many folks in the trenches of the school integration crisis, such as the Little Rock Nine kids themselves, deserve the most credit for helping to change things, I take some inspiration from Adolphine
Fletcher Terry, a septuagenarian who took up a fight that was "not her own", and fought it because it was the right thing to do. It's a reminder to me that I can do the same. I think that it's time for all the schools to be reopened, from neglect and bureaucratic incompetence. This is the kind of place in which progressive people can make a difference, where anti-progressive forces have quietly created massive problems.