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     Volume 5 Issue 114 | September 29, 2006 |

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One Little Rock at a Time

Nader Rahman

Little Rock Nine and Daisy Bates

The civil rights movement in America has come a long way since the days of Martin Luther King. His dream may have come and gone yet even today his message still resonates; these days it has only taken on a more global perspective. This week 49 years ago nine black children were the public face of desegregation, as they entered a previously all white school for the first time. They were famously known as the Little Rock Nine, and their bravery is what gave the civil rights movement the real push it needed. Two years earlier Rosa Parks refused to give her seat up to make room for a white passenger and then became a very public symbol for the movement, while the Little Rock Nine received almost the same amount of media coverage and attention their contribution is now somewhat a footnote to Rosa Parks. Truth be told without them, racial desegregation would have run out of steam even before it started.

The incident involving the Little Rock Nine, can be pre-dated to 1951 when a class action suit was filed in the name of Oliver L. Brown et al against The Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas. The background to the case was that Oliver Brown and eleven other plaintiffs called for the schools in Topeka to reverse their policy of racial segregation. The plaintiff's bone of contention was that their children lived closer to white schools and thereby they should be spared the trouble of walking up to six blocks to get on a bus to school, when the nearest (white) school was only seven blocks away.

The District Courts ruled in favour of The Board of Education, they cited the precedent set in the 1896 Plessy Vs Ferguson case. The verdict of that Supreme Court ruling was that state law should uphold the “separate but equal” segregated facilities of blacks and whites. There was a silver lining though; they also openly said that segregation in public education had an adverse effect on black children. They only ruled against them because the white and black schools in Topeka were equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricula, and educational qualifications of teachers. It was next taken to the Supreme Court where it was heard along with three other cases, the Topeka case was different because there was no contention of gross inferiority of the segregated schools' physical plant, curriculum, or staff, all they wanted was an easier way to send their children to school. And if that meant sending them to a white school, then so be it.

The decision handed down by the Supreme Court on the 17th of May 1954 was historic they said that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The holding was that “Racial segregation of students in public schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because separate facilities are inherently unequal. District Court of Kansas reversed.” This verdict was a massive shot in the arm for the civil rights movement, but it also came in a rather disjointed manner, thereby diluting the power of what was supposed to be an unheralded law. It was only the following year that the ruling was completed when the Supreme Court ordered the states' compliance with the verdict “with all deliberate
speed”. Many took that to be a sign that they had backed down, because the wording seemed deliberately ambiguous.

Students arriving in an army car

Fast forward to September 1957 when Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus called up the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering high school. President Eisenhower was furious at what had happened and demanded a meeting with Faubus. Eisenhower was not necessarily a whole hearted supporter of the blacks, yet he feared for integrity of the Supreme Court with the manner in which Faubus had taken matters into his own hands. They met and on September 14th the National Guard was recalled and the stage was set for the Little Rock Nine to attend desegregated high school. Finally on September 24th only after Eisenhower had sent a division of the Army (the 101st airborne division) did they actually attend desegregated high school for the first time. The army stayed with the nine children for the entire year, and escorted them to and from home to school. It was an unprecedented event, what is commonly forgotten though, is that the next year Little Rock closed down its public schools in order to avoid integration. What was supposed to be a great victory for black people was nothing more than an extended show of good faith. It is embarrassing to think that only after a year all public schools were closed down in Little Rock, merely because they refused to integrate. Where was the great Eisenhower then?

This week marks a major date in the desegregation of America, but that is commonly confused with integration. Morris J. MacGregor, Jr. said it best “In recent years many historians have come to distinguish between these like-sounding words. Desegregation they see as a direct action against segregation; that is, it signifies the act of removing legal barriers to the equal treatment of black citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution. The movement toward desegregation, breaking down the nation's Jim Crow system, became increasingly popular in the decade after World War II. Integration, on the other hand, Professor Oscar Handlin maintains, implies several things not yet necessarily accepted in all areas of American society. In one sense it refers to the "leveling of all barriers to association other than those based on ability, taste, and personal preference"; in other words, providing equal opportunity. But in another sense integration calls for the random distribution of a minority throughout society. Here, according to Handlin, the emphasis is on racial balance in areas of occupation, education, residency, and the like.”

The Little Rock Nine were the main instigators in desegregating American society, yet now it seems shameful that the worlds most powerful nation, a nation which prides its self freedom should have even had to go through such a stage. Forget about integrating black people into society, with the help of the law they had to reinstate peoples' rights before they could look them in the face and treat them equally again. Nearly one hundred years after the civil war, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Why was it fought in the first place if it only succeeded a hundred years later? Slavery may have been abolished yet it only gave rise to second class citizens, a fancy way of saying slave I guess. These days America is the first to wax lyrical about human rights abuses around the world, for just under two hundred years of their existence as a country they gave the rest of the world an insight into what the absence of rights really meant. Are we really to take them seriously now, only because they wield economic and military power?

Five decades on, as a nation they have not learnt from their collective past. The new blacks are the Muslims. “separate but equal ” is what they must say whenever a bearded man is stopped and searched in an airport. It is a shame that soon enough they will have to go through yet another phase of desegregation; they have passed judgement on another race. I wonder, who is next?




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