The Legacy of the Little Rock Nine

The case of the Little Rock Nine 50 years ago still reverberates in our cultural history. We discuss its impact on Arkansas and the nation.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And joining us now from Washington, NPR's Juan Williams, our regular Friday news analyst. He'll be along in that role later in the show. But Juan, you also wrote the book and PBS documentary series, "Eyes on the Prize," which is about the civil rights era. And give us, can you please, the context of Little Rock in that time.

JUAN WILLIAMS: You know, Alex, this is an interesting frame in that of course the Brown decision happens in 1954, May 17th. You have schools around the country that are saying they not only plan to resist, but that they are willing to close altogether to end public education rather than comply with the decision.

And I must tell you that it's beyond that framework. We have to go outside the frame for a second to feel the emotional power that came through in the piece that you just - the story you just told, Alex, because it's at that time that you have Rosa Parks, the year after Brown, 1955...

CHADWICK: That's right.

WILLIAMS: ...refusing to give up her seat on the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. It's also during that time period that you have Emmett Till, a young man from Chicago who goes down to Mississippi, and while down there supposedly whistles at a white woman. He's a child and, you know, 14, 15 years old and he's supposedly whistling at a 20-year-old white woman. And that results in people dragging him out of his great granduncle's house in the middle of the night and then he ends up in the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin, a huge metal device tied around his neck and he's shot in the head, which again is a sensation in terms of race relations around the country, a reminder of how far the country has yet to travel. And then in the midst of that, here comes Little Rock.

CHADWICK: Juan, in reading about this time and talking to people about this time, I realized it's the mid-1950s - there have been laws in effect for generations, segregation laws. I mean this was legal. This was the way life had been. Now it's the 1950s, a triumphant America after World War II, and the country begins to examine itself, its past, and what has happened with race in America.

WILLIAMS: In a very intense way, remember, there are struggles over baseball. Remember Jackie Robinson, it's 1947, breaking the color line in Major League Baseball. And then you have the struggles going on in Korea over whether or not black and white can fight together in the American uniform. And that struggle, the whole issue, is very much alive here at home.

Are we going to be people who promote democracy abroad and yet live with this kind of separation and oppression here in America? And I think that's where you're starting to see now the conflict come into sharp focus. It's almost like sparks are coming off of both ends of a grinding wheel as these two powerful forces come together, Alex. And I think it all comes to, you know, fireworks or explosions, if you will, in Little Rock.

CHADWICK: NPR's Juan Williams with us from Washington, back later in the program. Juan, thank you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Alex.

CHADWICK: And there's more on all of this at our Web site, npr.org.

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