"This isn't just a story about African Americans. It's not just a story about Little Rock. It isn't a story of good vs. evil," says Miller, the historical site's interpretive director. "It's about how we, as Americans, have the responsibility to make things better and more equitable for everyone."
To coincide with the city's 50th anniversary celebration this September, the Park Service is building a larger visitors' center next door, which will house exhibits about other human rights struggles – from immigrant rights, to disability rights, to gay rights – making the connection between what happened at Central High School and other, contemporary struggles for human rights.
"Today, to read the newspaper, it's almost like reading the papers from 1957," Miller says. "The language that's used to talk about immigrants, or gays and lesbians – it's the same language that was used to talk about African Americans in the 1950s."
On a more basic level, what makes the story of the Little Rock Nine still relevant are the invisible lines, dividing schools and neighborhoods, that continue to separate Americans by race and class.
The chance that a Southern black student will attend a majority-white school is 32,000 times higher today than it was in 1954, according to Harvard's Civil Rights Project. Yet, a recent study released by the Project reveals a deeply troubling trend: Public schools today are more segregated along race and class lines than at any point in the past 30 years.
The 2003 report found that only 14 percent of white students ever attend multiracial schools. In 44 percent of U.S. public high schools, the student population is almost entirely black. Researchers call this trend "resegregation."
For example, in Little Rock, white residents comprised a majority of the population in the 2000 census, yet white youth accounted for only 29 percent of the public school enrollment. Some see this as a remnant of the late 1950s, when a sudden growth of private schools appeased white families uncomfortable with integration.
"Most of the progress of the previous two decades in increasing integration in the [South] was lost," writes Gary Orfield, the Harvard study's co-author, in Rethinking Schools. "The South is still much more integrated than it was before the civil rights revolution, but it is moving backward at an accelerated rate."
A primary reason is a string of Supreme Court decisions in the early 1990s that relaxed the standards by which school integration was defined. Nationally, school integration reached its peak in the late 1980s; ever since, it's declined.
The costs of resegregation are high. Segregated minority schools are disproportionately poor, with larger class sizes, fewer advanced courses and lower college enrollment rates for graduates than their segregated white counterparts.
Several studies have shown that integrated schools bolster test scores and college enrollment and improve intergroup relations among students of different racial backgrounds. However, when school districts attempt to address issues of racial equity, they often meet with controversy.
- In April 2006, the Nebraska state legislature approved a measure to split the Omaha school system into three separate districts, loosely divided along racial lines – one for white students, one for black students, one for Latinos. Supporters argued it would give minorities greater control over their own schools. Opponents labeled it segregation.
- In June 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two appeals from white parents in Seattle, Wash., and Jefferson County, Ky., who argued their school districts discriminate against white students by using race as a factor when assigning students to schools.
- In July 2006, the Supreme Court let stand an earlier decision, made prior to the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, rejecting the challenge to a policy in Lynn, Mass. The Lynn school district considers race when approving school transfers. The lawsuit by parents was the first challenge to a voluntary desegregation plan to make it to trial.
Legal scholars claim more than 1,000 race-based school assignment policies are in place in districts across the country. Opponents argue that these policies erroneously teach students that race still matters. Proponents argue that's exactly the point: Race does still matter, and policies leveling the educational playing field are sorely needed.
The Supreme Court, now with a new, conservative-leaning justice who didn't participate in the Lynn case, was scheduled to hear arguments in the Washington and Kentucky cases last fall. The decision, expected later this year, could have sweeping repercussions for schools across the nation.
'Part of a huge story'
Crowded around a bank of computers at the back of George West's classroom, three students spent much of their spare time last summer building a website that would house the Central High School Memory Project. The curriculum West and his students designed addresses the roots of democracy and how people throughout history have been excluded from its benefits. Students talk about what it means to act heroically, what it takes to change society. They learn how to map social justice movements. To make the project interdisciplinary, West partners with an English teacher, who leads students in a discussion of Warriors Don't Cry, a memoir by Little Rock Nine member Melba Pattillo Beals.
And then, students get out the tape recorders.
After learning interviewing skills -- listening for changes in tone of voice, paying attention to body language, recording details about the physical surroundings -- students set out to interview older relatives about their memories of the Civil Rights Movement. Students transcribe the interviews and then turn them into essays.
Verdia Abrams, a senior, interviewed her father, who grew up in an African-American neighborhood near Central High.
"When he was 10 or 11, he was a paper boy," Verdia says. "A couple of days after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Little Rock was under curfew. He had to break the curfew to deliver his papers. A truck of guardsmen stopped him and pointed their guns at him and asked where he was going. They used the 'n' word. They said, 'If you run, we're going to shoot you.' Finally, they let him go, and he ran home.
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh!' I never imagined he actually had to go through those things. I wasn't born during that time, so I didn't think it affected me. But knowing that things like that happened to my dad and people I love really brings it home."
One student learned his grandfather had been a New York Times reporter on assignment in Selma, Ala., during the march to Montgomery. Another learned her mother had been "scrubbed down" by her parents after dancing with a black student at a high school dance. Another interviewed a white man who had been in the angry crowd of segregationists protesting Central High's integration.
West had hoped the act of interviewing and then writing about history would help make the Civil Rights Movement come alive for his students. He thought it would help students feel connected to their own pasts and gain a better understanding of how individuals can contribute to large-scale, social justice movements. But he didn't expect the essays to be of value to anyone but the students.
"I was wrong," he says. "What's significant is that you're getting the attitudes and perspectives of a 15-year-old today about what's significant in this 65-year-old's memory. This suggests how ideas, values and a sense of struggle are passed on."
So the students and West decided to create a website. By the summer of 2006, they had collected 250 essays. By the 50th anniversary, every essay will be archived online, indexed by topic and time period.
"I'm intent on having other teachers in other towns adapt this to other events in history that shaped their communities – when the railroad came, when the steel mill left," West says. "There are things in history that changed the way people lived... The more we know about them, the better we understand our history and the better off we are."
The project has helped students and teachers at Central learn how to start talking about race.
"There were lynchings in families," says Mike Johnson, another civics teacher at Central whose students participated in the Memory Project. "Tears were shed. It's eye-opening to hear these stories."
Adds senior Tafi Mukunyadzi: "You realize you're not just a person walking through this earth on your own. You're part of a huge story. We all had family members who had a story about the Civil Rights Movement. So we're all connected through that."
Across the street at the Historical Site, two dozen middle school students in matching purple shirts wander through the exhibits. They stand in clumps, captivated by the photographs, leaning in to read the timeline painted on the wall.
They're here on a day trip from a summer camp in Emoba, Ark., one of three groups on today's schedule. Every child in the group is African American; the group before them was mostly white.
As the group nears the end of the tour, a woman enters the room. Her name is Carlotta Walls-Lanier, and she's dropping by the visitor's center during her trip this week to Little Rock.
Tall and elegant, Walls-Lanier weaves through the crowd of students and peppers them with questions: "Are you having a good time?" "Does anyone have any questions?" At first, the students seem surprised: Who is this stranger, and why is she speaking to us? Then Walls-Lanier points to a photograph on the wall.
"That's me," she says.
One student asks, surprised, "Are you one of the Little Rock Nine?"
"That's right," she says, nodding her head.
She then points to another picture, of the Nine sitting on the steps of the Supreme Court building, with Thurgood Marshall sandwiched in the middle. She tells them what it was like to watch Marshall argue their case in court. "He," she tells the students, scanning the room, "was my hero."
Walls-Lanier asks the group if anyone has any questions. At first, no one responds. Finally, after several seconds, a student raises her hand.
"How was your first-day experience?" she says.
Quickly, the questions begin to flow, the students' voices layering on top of each other, asking questions so quickly that Walls-Lanier doesn't have time to respond.
"What was going through your mind that day?"
"Did you talk with each other every day about what had happened to you?"
"Did someone teach you how to deal with the mobs?"
"Hold on, hold on," Walls-Lanier says, holding her hands up, laughing.
The students quiet. And she begins to tell the story.
This concludes the report put together by Tolerance.org. Now check out some great activities you can plan for your own classrooms and then check out some resources recommended by Reach And Teach. First..... check out this music video about the Little Rock Nine