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Little Rock marks a civil rights victory

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

(Page 2 of 2)

A city divided by race

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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.