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50 years after integration battle, legacy looms large in Ark.

Trailblazers return to Little Rock

From left, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Ernest Green, and Terrence Roberts yesterday at a ceremony in Little Rock. From left, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Ernest Green, and Terrence Roberts yesterday at a ceremony in Little Rock. (Danny Johnston/associated press)

LITTLE ROCK - Fifty years after federal troops escorted Terrence Roberts and eight fellow black students into an all-white high school, he says the struggles over race and segregation still are unresolved.

"This country has demonstrated over time that it is not prepared to operate as an integrated society," said Roberts, who is a faculty member with Antioch University's psychology program.

He and the other students known as the Little Rock Nine will help the city observe the 50th anniversary of desegregation at Central High School this week with events culminating in a ceremony with Bill Clinton, the former president and governor.

For three weeks in September 1957, Little Rock was the focus of a showdown over integration as Governor Orval Faubus blocked nine black students from enrolling at the high school with about 2,000 white students. Although the US Supreme Court had declared segregated classrooms unconstitutional in 1954 - and the Little Rock School Board had voted to integrate - Faubus said he feared violence if the races mixed in a public school.

The showdown soon became a test for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sent members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division to control the angry crowds. It was the first time in 80 years that federal troops had been sent to a former state of the Confederacy.

Yet, half a century later, there are signs of progress and strife in the state's largest school district, which is now 70 percent black.

A federal judge ruled this year that the 27,000-student district was unitary, or substantially integrated, and ordered the end of federal desegregation monitoring. The school now has a nearby museum recalling the Little Rock crisis, and statues of the nine black students stand on the grounds of the state Capitol.

But race still divides the school board, which has a black majority.

In 1957, Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Melba Patillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown Trickey, and Thelma Mothershed Wair were determined to get a good education.

"I really didn't understand at 14 we were helping change the educational landscape here in America," LaNier recalls. "All we wanted to do is go to school."

When Faubus stopped Arkansas National Guardsmen from blocking the students, an inflamed crowd gathered to keep the black students out.

Relman Morin, an Associated Press reporter standing outside the school at the time, used "human explosion" to describe the choas when the nine students slipped inside during a melee.

Eisenhower was shocked at the violence. "Cruel mob force had frustrated the execution of an order of a United States court, and the governor of the state was sitting by, refusing to lift a finger to support the local authorities," Eisenhower later wrote, according to David A. Nichols, author of "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution."

Eisenhower signed a proclamation approving the use of federal troops to enforce US District Judge Ronald Davies's desegregation order and the students entered Central High under armed escort Sept. 25, 1957.

"That was a turning point in history because it said that, when push comes to shove, two of the three branches of American government will respond on behalf of integration as part of the fundamental American heritage," said historian Taylor Branch, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "Parting the Waters" and other books about the civil rights movement.

In later weeks, the ride to school often served as a group refuge, Beals recalled Sunday. Sometimes, the students would just sit in silence, whether in a family member's car or an Army jeep, waiting for the torment and their classmates to turn their backs on them.

"It was a time of soul mending," Beals said. "What whispers and inklings of promise we got came from each other."

Green, the first black to graduate from Central, said he had studied the history of other black trailblazers at the time but did not think he would join their ranks.

"We saw ourselves as groundbreakers in breaking tradition," said Green, who served as an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs under President Jimmy Carter. "But I don't see that any of us thought we would be part of the civil rights legacy."

Despite the torment and legal battle, eight of the nine black students completed the school year.

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