School Desegregation: At What Price?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This month, the nation marks an important anniversary in education and civil rights. It was 50 years ago that Central High School in Arkansas was integrated by black students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine.
Commentator S. Pearl Sharp followed their struggles as a schoolgirl herself. She says it's time to take a closer look at the lessons of their story.
S. PEARL SHARP: Education has always been pushed in the black community as the key to lifting racism's yoke off its shoulders. During the 1950s, integration was added to the plan. Growing up in a large northern city during that time, I was always clear that integration was our parents' agenda, and we children were the foot soldiers.
From elementary school through high school, my friends and I were breaking color barriers every week. We turned to being the first Negro into an art form. that my family expected of me and my English Comp class, only to be shot down by the teacher who accused me of plagiarism because Negros couldn't possibly write that well.
Still, I never experienced violence. But in 1957, on black-and-white TV, I watched I danced between talking white and sounding black. I rose to the brilliance kids my age facing what looked like the entire U.S. Army as they struggle to gain entrance to a Southern all-white school. The scene was Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Arkansas' governor, Orval Faubus, declared that blood would run in the streets if Negroes entered Central High. Only after President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne did the students get inside.
Throughout the school year, they were beaten, kicked and spit on. They received lynching threats. One student's home was bombed, their parents lost jobs and businesses, and that was just the physical price tag. There was also the assault on the psyche. Up North, we cheered them and prayed for them. But secretly, I wanted to ask them if the racial madness they were going through in order to attend school with whites was worth it.
This month is the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine's integration of Central High School, and I am still pondering the question. Yes, many who survived the experience say that it prepared them to be more comfortable in the larger white society. But at what price?
Segregation cost us a lot. But pursuing desegregation - which became integration, which for many became assimilation - cost us more. One of the costs was the destruction of the support system that existed on all black communities, the kind of nurturing that develops when people know they have only each other to depend on. It's a loss that slaps us in the days today with the extra high dropout rate among black students and with each child-against-child act of violence.
All of the Little Rock Nine survived the experiment. And today, they are leaders in their communities. But hundreds of children involved in integrating the schools became social or mental victims rather than victors. It is for them and for the groups today who are trying to find their entry door into the American educational system that makes me think the question is still worth exploring. When our parents put us on the train to integration without knowing the price of the ticket, did they do the right thing?
Today, school desegregation is being overturned by the same courts that initiated it. Maybe now is the time re-examine the question of how we plan to live and learn together.
MARTIN: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Her book, "Black Women for Beginners," has just been re-released by Random House.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.