Civil Rights Cities: Little Rock, Arkansas

February 11, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
Witness to one of the defining moments in the U.S. civil rights movement, Little Rock, Ark., made history in 1957 when nine African American students tested federal anti-segregation laws in public schools for the first time. Even before that seminal 1957 event, Little Rock had been the scene of both progress and setbacks for African Americans in their struggle for equality and civil rights. Today, Little Rock is a thriving center of business and government, as well as home to a nascent tourism industry.


African Americans lived in Arkansas more than a century before it claimed statehood in 1836. After slavery ended, in the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, some African Americans left the state for the industrialized north. But many also stayed, practicing trades and building businesses. Between 1869 and 1893, African Americans won more than 45 seats in the Arkansas legislature, headquartered in Little Rock. During this time, African American students had access to education, even in some outlying areas. Music, craftsmanship and the arts thrived. Important churches, community centers and other historic buildings central to the African American experience in Little Rock are open to the public.

Brooks-Baxter War

In 1872, a contested gubernatorial election between Joseph Brooks (who claimed African American support) and Elisha Baxter (supported by whites) tested the new voting rights for African Americans in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Election results were widely disputed, but in the end it was Baxter who was installed in the Old Statehouse (now the Arkansas capitol building). Two years later, a state judge ruled that Brooks was the rightful governor, and swore him in. As Brooks took his seat, a mob dragged Baxter out of the capitol. Blood ran in the streets of Little Rock as the largely African American supporters of Brooks fought off angry white Baxter supporters. It’s estimated that pro-Baxter whites killed more than 200 African Americans. These deaths happened in battles near the Old Statehouse. But the conflict caused more deaths: prominent African Americans who were “disappeared” in the years before and after the election and ensuing skirmishes. Finally, President Ulysses S. Grant supported Baxter, the original victor, and used federal troops to enforce his return to the Old Statehouse.

The Nine

Near the end of the school year in 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring, "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  With that unanimous vote, schools were legally to be desegregated. The first nationwide test of this ruling occurred on September 23 of that year at Little Rock’s Central High School. Nine African-American children attempted to attend the public, all-white school. They were met by a white mob of adults and schoolchildren who barred them from entering the school—a move blessed by then-Governor Orval E. Faubus, who mobilized the state’s National Guard to keep the nine students out.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower called in federal troops to restore peace and escort African American children into the classrooms. It was the first use of federal troops in Arkansas to support African American rights since the Civil War Reconstruction period. “The Nine,” as those first students were known, led the way for desegregated schools throughout the nation.

Big Little Rock

On the banks of the Arkansas River, Little Rock—yes, it actually was named after a little rock—is a modern capital teeming with agribusiness, shipping, manufacturing and high-tech industries. Its metropolitan area is home to about 500,000 people. The capital is known for its attractions, including the Little Rock Central High School historic site, theaters, museums and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. The River Market District, the capital’s new tourist magnet, was, until recently, a desolate downtown strip. Now it’s remade into the hot spot, with cafés, art galleries, restaurants and an open market. The revitalization was based on Seattle, Washington’s successful outdoor Pike Place Market.

Visiting Clinton

One of the capital’s most attended attractions is the William J. Clinton Presidential Center housed in a gleaming modern space overlooking the Arkansas River, designed by award-winning architect James Polshek. The center supports the Clinton library, foundation, and school, as well as a mock Oval Office as it looked during his administration. President Clinton himself moderates the audio tour, which includes his thoughts on one of his heroes—anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela.

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