At the end of a weeklong remembrance of the day nine black students crossed the color barrier into Central High School here, the debate on Friday turned to whether the clock is turning backward on desegregation.
“We obviously have not overcome the difficulties of the past,” former Mississippi Gov. William Winter said in his keynote speech Friday night at Central High’s auditorium - opening a national conference on race here.
The two-day discussion, beamed by satellite to 40 cities Friday night and today, followed on the heels of Thursday’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Little Rock school crisis.
Winter, a member of President Clinton’s advisory board on race, said the desegregation of the nation’s public schools since 1957 has been accompanied by “drastically reduced white enrollment.”
By 1980, white students made up only 4 percent of the public school enrollment in Washington, D.C., 8 percent in Atlanta, and 12 percent in Detroit, he said.
Even so, Winter, an education reformer in his home state during the 1980s, called for a renewed push to bring the races together in schools.
“There must first of all be an understanding that we shall succeed (as a competitive nation) only by making our schools places where students not only learn how to make a living but also how to live together,” he said.
Earlier, at the University of Arkansas campus here, scholars also raised questions about the future of desegregation.
“The resolve for integration has weakened” among whites and blacks, said David Goldfield, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Goldfield said that among some blacks it has now become “fashionable” to look back with nostalgia on era of segregation, when they lived in communities where the businesses were black-owned and families intact, he said.
Alton Hornsby, history professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, concurred. “Many blacks believe that there were certain values in those insular communities during segregation,” he said, adding that he did not share the nostalgic mood.
Nor does John Hope Franklin, the octogenarian chairman of President Clinton’s advisory council on race and a leading African-American historian, who dismissed the idea of returning to a bygone era.
“Anyone who wants to go back there wasn’t there the last time,” he said. “I was there.
Even so, scholars and others expressed disappointment at the unfulfilled hopes of the civil rights era.
John Walker, the lead attorney in the ongoing case against the Little Rock school district, said in an interview, “The fairness that desegregated schools promised was never realized.”
Walker’s chief complaint now is that the city school system, anxious to keep as many white students as possible, bends over backward to assist whites. He is especially rankled by the fact that some 60 percent of the white students at Central High School are in advanced courses, while blacks predominate in the all of the other levels.
“What you have in Little Rock is white flight,” Walker said. “So every white child is an asset to the school.”
Goldfield said such policies are a “major thrust” in urban school districts, where black students are generally bused longer distances. “The greatest burden is still on the black children,” he said. “The policy is to keep middle class white families” in the system.