01/18/2007

Central High Students Revisit Historic Integration

Latest issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine looks back at the Little Rock Nine

Students and teachers at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., are revisiting the historic events of 1957, when nine courageous black students enrolled there to test the Supreme Court's decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, according to the Spring 2007 edition of Teaching Tolerance.

The magazine's cover story, Gates of Change, describes how the students are collecting and preserving the personal memories of those who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and the turmoil that surrounded their own school's integration. The students have already written more than 250 essays based on those memories, and they plan to post them all online.

"The doors of Central became the gates of change for an entire America," Central High civics teacher George West told Teaching Tolerance. "Yet so many students at Central knew virtually nothing about the events that happened here."

The Central High Memory Project is particularly relevant today as the current Supreme Court is poised to issue a ruling that could set back efforts to achieve racial diversity in schools. At issue in the case under consideration is whether local school districts can take race into account when assigning students to schools.

The student project commemorates the events that began on Sept. 4, 1957, when the black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, attempted to integrate Central High. It was the first major test of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which toppled the "separate but equal" doctrine used to justify segregating students by race.

The black students were turned away by National Guard troops under orders from Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus. However, following days of violence by angry mobs and the evacuation of the students from the school, they finally entered safely after President Dwight D. Eisenhower took control of the National Guard troops and sent in paratroopers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division to enforce the Supreme Court's ruling.

With the help of their teachers, Central students interviewed relatives about their memories of that event and the Movement. Much of what they learned was startling. One student found out how her father was harassed by National Guardsmen. Another discovered her mother had been "scrubbed down" by her parents after dancing with a black student at a high school dance.

"We all had family members who had a story about the Civil Rights Movement," said Tafi Mukunyadzi, a senior at Central. "You realize you're not just a person walking through this earth on your own. You're part of a huge story."

Unfortunately, despite the success of school integration following the events at Central High, public schools now are more segregated along race and class lines than at any point in the past 30 years, according to Harvard's Civil Rights Project.

And, just as the issue of racism remains with us today, other social problems also impede students' opportunities: the stigmatization of children who live in poverty, the almost constant harassment of gay students, and the ridicule and shame cast upon fat students.

The new issue of Teaching Tolerance includes articles about other challenges students face.

  • The Question of Class Professor Paul C. Gorski challenges educators to question the culture of classist assumptions that infiltrates our classrooms and schools. 
  • This is Why We Need a GSA Gay-straight alliances are taking hold in middle schools, where homophobia and anti-gay harassment may be the most rampant.
  • Fat... So? Much of the size bias many teenagers experience is a result of the hysteria surrounding the global obesity epidemic. 
  • We Don't Need Special Powers A parenting column talks about teaching our children to see themselves as heroes, and empowering them to do great things to help the world.

In addition, the magazine includes Crocodile and Ghost Bat Have a Hullabaloo, a children's story from Rhinos and Raspberries: Stories & Activities for Young Peacemakers, Teaching Tolerance's newest teaching kit.

A Teaching Tools section reviews the best multicultural books, films, posters and CDs available, and the Activity Exchange provides classroom activities for early, middle and upper grades.

Teaching Tolerance magazine, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is the nation's leading journal serving educators on diversity issues. In 2006, the magazine won Periodical of the Year from the Association of Educational Publishers. The current issue was sent free to more than 400,000 school professionals across the country.