Little Rock marks a civil rights victory

But 50 years later, integration hasn't led to income equality for the city's blacks.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Fifty years after nine African-American students marched through the doors of Little Rock Central High School, a key moment in the civil rights movement, the school and this city are holding a celebration.

The Little Rock Nine – as they are called – have returned to mark the occasion this week. The high school itself, ranked as the 26th best high school in America by Newsweek magazine, has pointed with pride to its integrated student body: 53 percent blacks and 40 percent whites. But amid the festivities, there's a lingering recognition that the larger goals of school integration have not been met.

Equality of education – especially up to the high school level – has not translated into economic equality. Integrated schools have not stopped Little Rock, like many cities in the South, from further segregating in terms of where whites and blacks live.

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"We're going to move forward," said Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, during a press conference Sunday that expressed the mixture of optimism and frustration that many in the African-American community feel. "The issue is, how do we move forward in a way that is inclusive rather than exclusive? And so we're not 100 percent happy, but that just means we've got to ... work harder."

The educational gains that African-Americans have made in Little Rock are dramatic. In 1950, seven years before federal troops escorted the Little Rock Nine into Central High over the objections of then Gov. Orval Faubus, blacks had far less schooling than their white counterparts. Only 11 percent of the city's nonwhite adults had finished four years of high school, compared with 26 percent citywide, according to census data. Today, that gap has almost disappeared: 86 percent of black adults have a high school diploma compared with 91 percent for the city overall. Those gains mirror the national trend.

But educational achievement remains a problem. At Central High, for example, 83 percent of white juniors scored "proficient" or better on standardized tests in 2006 compared with only 28 percent of African-American juniors. Some charge that the school's abundant advanced placement courses, which are popular with white students but not with African-Americans, separate the races.

Disparity in college

Those challenges may help explain why the racial disparity in college graduation rates, while improved, remains large. In Little Rock in 1950, the percentage of nonwhite adults with four years of college was less then half the city's overall rate (3.6 versus 8.8 percent), according to census data. Last year, the percentage was more than half the citywide rate (20.4 versus 38.7 percent).

These educational improvements have narrowed but not eliminated the income gap. In 1950, the median nonwhite family earned less than half of the city's median family income (roughly $1,100 compared with $2,425). In 2006, the census found that the median household headed by an African-American male earned two-thirds of the city's overall median family income ($38,400 compared with $58,100). That's almost exactly the national median income for both groups).

A city divided by race

Little Rock remains a city divided – physically and psychologically – by Interstate 630, a freeway running through its center that was completed in 1985. Most of its white residents, who make up 53 percent of the population, live north of I-630. Most of the city's African-Americans, who make up 40 percent of the population, live south of it. That barrier demarcates neighborhoods in a way that didn't exist in 1957, when working-class members of both races lived, if not in neighboring houses, at least on neighboring streets, says Jay Barth, professor of politics at Hendrix College in nearby Conway, Ark.

Moreover, as in other cities, court decisions requiring busing to integrate schools hastened white flight to outlying suburbs and to the city's new western neighborhoods. "It's easier now, I would argue, to go through the day without seeing someone or at least interacting with someone of the opposite race," Professor Barth says.

Still, some mixing occurs. Students at Central High say that although black and white students spend their lunch hour in largely separate areas, they freely cross the color line whenever they want. Angelica Luster, a junior who is African-American, says that sheltered freshmen who come to Central with limited experiences outside their own race develop a multiethnic set of friends by the time they graduate. Anne-Elise Hawkins, a white senior, says she watched a recent football game at a birthday party that was attended by black and white students.

If school integration hasn't achieved the equality that African-Americans have sought, what will?

Local black leaders point to various solutions. State Sen. Tracy Steele says the community needs to develop leaders. State NAACP chief Dale Charles points to the need to overcome institutional racism. Several leaders continue to push education as a solution with a heavy emphasis on achievement.

The African-American community needs "a new culture of academic excellence and intellectualism," says Walter Kimbrough, president of historically black Philander Smith College in Little Rock. State Court of Appeals Judge Wendell Griffen calls for higher expectations at home: "It's how much we affirm every child and encourage every family to affirm every child as a learner," he says.

Earlier this year, the Little Rock school district was finally released from a long-running court-ordered desegregation plan.

There are signs that racial barriers can be overcome. In 2001, after realizing that the only minorities in the megachurch where he was a youth pastor were the janitors, Mark DeYmaz started the Mosaic Church. He contacted a local black minister and, with a racially diverse staff, built the church into the 700 members – half white, half nonwhite – that it has today. Mr. DeYmaz says that racial differences can never be solved by legislation, education, or other earthly pursuits. "Racism is ultimately a spiritual problem, and it requires a spiritual solution, and that's found in houses of faith and houses of worship," he said.

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