Little Rock, 50 Years Later

Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News correspondent based in Dallas.
While it is important to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock 9, its also important to do a reality check of how far we have come in achieving some of the ideals that those students struggled valiantly for.

These nine were not the first to integrate schools. In fact, smaller towns in Arkansas like Charleston and Fayetville and Hoxie had done it successfully years before the now-famous showdown. There are even stories of white students in those towns escorting the black students in so there wouldn't be any trouble. However, it is the iconic images of these nine students, and the mobs outside, that are embedded into the history of the civil rights movement.

We are entering the last decade with a white majority in our nation's schools. It is already a fact in regions such as the south and the west, and perhaps adds urgency to an examination of what has happened to classrooms in terms of diversity and desegregation.

A recent report released in August of this year by the Civil Rights Project is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic. It puts hard numbers behind a disturbing trend- that of re-segregation in the nation's schools. They're certainly not as segregated as they were 50 years ago, when these brave students were escorted to class everyday by the 101st airborne. But they are far worse than they were even 20 years ago.

In the story on the Evening News, I pointed to a few numbers, but let me give you some more that I found interesting, but didn't have time include in the piece.

The south had actually desegregated faster than the rest of the country and is now resegrating faster as well. In 1960, there was only .1% black students in a majority white school in the south, that number went up to 43.5% in 1988, and is now back down to 27%.

How is it that average white students in the United states attend schools that are 77% white, while black students go to schools that are 52% black and Latino kids go to schools that are 55% Latino. When you look at the two minority groups together across the country, black and Latino kids go to schools that are 70% non-white.

In Kansas City, Missouri, the average black student attends a school that is 8% white. In Detroit, the average black student attends a school that is just 1% white.

If separate-but-equal was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954, three major Supreme Court decisions, including a recent one this past summer, have been redefining and limiting what and how school districts and communities can go about integrating or desegregating their schools.

So why does it matter anyway?

If you set aside the feel-good social benefits for a second, research (supported by 553 social scientists) shows us that
-critical thinking skills of all students improve in racially integrated classrooms,
-academic achievement of black and Latino students is generally higher in desegregated schools,
-and contrary to the popular myth, integrated school environments do not harm the test scores of white students.

The bad is getting worse.

Research also shows us that the vast majority of segregated minority schools have
-a lack of resources
-fewer qualified and experienced teachers,
-higher teacher turnover rates,
-larger class size,
-fewer advanced classes,
-inferior infrastructure,
- And fewer basic educational supplies.

From San Francisco to Charlotte and back, school superintendents and boards are trying to figure out how to walk the line - in giving their parents choices on where they want their kids to go, and how to create an atmosphere where kids enjoy the academic and social benefits of being IN integrated CLASSROOMS.

I had an opportunity to sit down with some exceptional young seniors attending Central High in Little Rock. They realize that they have it pretty good; their school generates national merit finalists and wins enough awards to line its long tile hallways. For most of today's students, the type of daily taunting and ridicule the Little Rock 9 endured is unimaginable; but for almost every freshmen, stories written by and about the Little Rock 9 are required reading.

The racial balance within the walls of their beautiful school has stayed roughly at the same levels as at the peak of integration, but even these students know they have a long way to go. When asked if the average white/black/Latino had a diverse group of friends, each student said no. They are aware enough to know that it's not just a court order that creates friendships, that there is a world outside their integrated school walls, that is far from desegregated.