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Fifty Years after Little Rock: Successes and Setbacks RULE

From “Little Rock Nine” to Today

On September 23, 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, nine African-American students quietly slipped into Central High School through the side door with the assistance of the city’s police, while an unsuspecting angry white mob numbering 1,000 swarmed the front of the school to await their arrival.  Upon learning of their entry, the crowd became unruly, confronting and overwhelming the city police.  During the riot, two African-American journalists were physically harassed and attacked and then chased out of the area; school windows and doors were broken; and the nine African-American students were escorted out of the school by police.  Central High School’s integrations efforts that day -- which started in 1955 with the school board voting to gradually integrate -- came to a quick close, all before lunch.  The brave efforts of the students, later known as the “Little Rock Nine,” to gain equal access to education in the United States established September 23rd as an important date in the Civil Rights Movement.

After that fateful day, the U.S. Supreme Court contributed to advancements toward school integration, from such decisions as those in Cooper v. Aaron (1958) which overrode state government’s ability to block desegregation, to Keyes v. Denver School District No. I (1963) which established the right to desegregation outside the South and the right of desegregation for Latino students.  As a result of such key court-ordered desegregation requirements, for the next three decades, school districts across the country implemented plans to desegregate their student bodies.

By the 1990s, most once-segregated schools had desegregated in accordance with the law, and thus fewer desegregation orders were deemed necessary by the courts.  Unfortunately, however, the courts’ decisions in addition to existing residential housing patterns led to an increase of de facto segregation.  For example, since the Supreme Court authorized termination of desegregation plans in their 1991 Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell decision, the Oklahoma City school district - which achieved a level of significant desegregation prior to 1991 – is currently experiencing increased racial isolation, where the district’s typical African-American student attends a school that is 18% white and its typical Latino student attends a school that is 22% white.  Likewise, in Charlotte, NC, after the federal courts rejected a desegregation plan that included a county-wide busing program implemented since 1971, the typical African-American student attended a school that was 24% white in 2005, compared to 51% in 1991.[1]

In addition to court-mandated plans, voluntary integration plans – plans implemented by schools rather than mandated by the courts to address de facto segregation – have also been under attack.  In June 2007, the Supreme Court struck down two voluntary integration plans, one implemented in Seattle and the other in Louisville.  Even though the decision confirmed that the government has a compelling interest in promoting racial diversity, the Court’s decision finding the plans unconstitutional may discourage school districts from creating any integration plans, and may make racial isolation in our nation’s schools an inevitability.

The following ADL resources provide educators with curriculum lessons and educational resources to assist students in better understanding the school integration landscape, exploring difficult questions about the state of school integration today, and understanding the connection between Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock crisis, and the 2007 Supreme Court decision on the voluntary school integration plans.

1. Gary Orfield & Chungmei Lee. (2007). Historic Reversals, Accelerating Resegregation, and the Need for New Integration Strategies.  Los Angeles: Civil Rights Project, UCLA.
From “Little Rock Nine” to Today
Educational Resources
Related Materials:
Establishing a Safe Learning Environment
ADL Encouraged By Supreme Court's Recognizing Racial Diversity As a Compelling Interest in Public Education
ADL’s Brief in the Civil Rights Case Parents Involved v. Seattle and Meredith v. Kentucky
ADL’s Brief in the Landmark Civil Rights Case, Brown v. Board of Education
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