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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Today, a federal judge in Little Rock, Arkansas, approved a settlement that ends decades of litigation over school desegregation. The city was one of the first tests of the Supreme Court's historic Brown versus the Board of Education ruling. And in 1957, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to integrate Little Rock's Central High School.
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PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWER]: Under the leadership of demagogic extremists, disorderly mobs have deliberately prevented the carrying out of proper orders from a federal court.
BLOCK: As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, Central High School remains a symbol of the ongoing struggle to achieve integration.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Just about anyone you speak to about the Little Rock desegregation case says it's time for the contentious and ongoing litigation to be over. But no one is really celebrating either.
STATE SENATOR JOYCE ELLIOTT: I'm happy courts are out of this. I am absolutely not satisfied of where we are.
ELLIOTT: Little Rock State Senator Joyce Elliott.
ELLIOTT: Little Rock above all places should be the shining star of what integration was supposed to have meant.
ELLIOTT: Expectations were high given the city's history. But Max Brantley, senior editor of the Arkansas Times, says for all of the pessimism about racial inequities that remain, there has been a measure of progress here when you compare Little Rock to other cities.
MAX BRANTLEY: Little Rock is only 66 percent black in its public school enrollment. I don't think there's an urban city in the South that has retained as many white students as the Little Rock school system has retained.
ELLIOTT: One way Little Rock sought to desegregate was to enhance programs at schools located in poor, mostly black neighborhoods as a tool to attract more middle-class and white students. One of those schools is historic Central High School, which offers an international studies curriculum.
A diverse mix of kids bustle through the tiled hallways between classes. The school is 56 percent black, 30 percent white with a sizable mix of Asian, Hispanic and international students.
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ELLIOTT: To get a sense of what students think about settling the desegregation case, I sit in on the last period African-American History class. Cynthia Nunnley is the teacher.
CYNTHIA NUNNLEY: So is the work essentially done?
ALICIA WAITS: Not quite, it's more to work on. But it's better than what it was.
ELLIOTT: Alicia Waits sits on the front row in this elective class, one that's all black save for one Hispanic student. She says you see that divide throughout the school.
WAITS: I walked in the cafeteria today. I looked on the left side, I didn't see nothing but white people sitting at the table. I looked on the right side, it wasn't nothing but black people. Why you all, you know, can't mix up, you know, be all together?
ELLIOTT: Senior Darius Porch says the work of the desegregation lawsuit is not yet complete.
DARIUS PORCH: This school is integrated but I don't feel like we are as one.
ELLIOTT: The divide here is what you might find at hundreds of high schools across America, but Central remains in the spotlight as perhaps the most famous high school in the country because of the crisis here in 1957. That provides a powerful frame for students to think about their legacy.
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ELLIOTT: After school, I stop by civics teacher George West's class.
GEORGE WEST: Let's set up the circle here and...
ELLIOTT: He's one of the advisors for what's called the Memory Project, students who conduct oral history interviews about the effects of discrimination. They've published two books of essays. Not surprisingly, they have a lot to say about where Central has come in nearly 60 years of school litigation.
Junior Malik Marshall.
MALIK MARSHALL: We are desegregated. We were desegregated in 1957. So, you know, the government and everybody around us that doesn't go to the school sees us and says: Oh, Central High School is integrated. But we're not. We're desegregated. We're not integrated, because integration comes from the heart of the people that go here.
Integration is not something that somebody can tell you to do. It's something that you have to want to do. And if the people in the school don't want to do it, it doesn't happen.
ELLIOTT: Marshall takes Advanced Placement, or AP, courses and says he's usually one of just a few African-American faces in mostly white classrooms. So his friends tend to be white.
MARSHALL: It's kind of like this barrier between me and the other black people just because they know I like to hang out with white people. And then it's also like, the white people that I hang out with, it's just kind of like - it's like always - I physically look different. Like I'm very singled out in that group, but like these are the people I know. And so, it makes me feel like I don't belong anywhere. You know what I'm saying?
ELLIOTT: Moving between groups can bring harsh judgment says senior Micah Booker.
MICAH BOOKER: I get called an Oreo sometimes...
BOOKER: ...which is like you're black on the outside, white on the inside because of how I talk and all these other things and stuff. And so, it's just - it can be hard.
ELLIOTT: Most of the students here believe the magnet programs and other remedies called for in the desegregation case have improved educational opportunities for minority students. And they worry what will happen without them and the state money that supplement its schools. But they're also skeptical that courts can resolve the kind of social segregation you see at Central.
Junior Rachel Schaffhauser, who is white, says students don't intentionally set out to divide themselves.
RACHEL SCHAFFHAUSER: I don't think I do it, like, on purpose. I'm just like, hey, I know that person. I'm going to sit with them. If you walk into as a freshman on the first day of school and you don't know anybody, except that one person, I'm going to go sit with that one person.
ELLIOTT: High school is hard enough without the pressure to break down society's racial barriers. Sophomore Angela Wang.
ANGELA WANG: When you come to Central and you see not only white people and black people, but also a group of Asian people, then you tend to kind of go towards them. Like, they understand you. You're from the same background.
ELLIOTT: But Junior Sally Goldman says staying in that comfort zone can thwart racial progress.
SALLY GOLDMAN: What I've heard a lot from not just this group but people as a whole is: Oh no, it's not racism. We're just sticking to what we know. And I think that is racism because we are afraid of what we don't know.
ELLIOTT: Having such a frank discussion is something that might not have been possible in 1957. And the students here are proud of what Central High School has achieved. It produces more national merit scholars than any other school in Arkansas.
Just before leading the school chant, Malik Marshall says: This is my school, I love it here.
MARSHALL: Can I get a roll call?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Central, Hurrah.
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
MARSHALL: I say: Can I get a roll call?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Central, Hurrah.
MARSHALL: OK. OK.
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