Trouble in Little Rock: The Desegregation of Central High School

Trouble in Little Rock: The Desegregation of Central High School
Hillary Clinton: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Five class periods


Introduction:

In 1957, four years after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that said that segregated schools were inherently unequal, nine brave African American students desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.  That year was difficult in many ways for those nine students, but they persevered and, in the end, helped to change the United States forever.  In 1997, President and Mrs. Clinton went "home" to Little Rock for the 40th anniversary celebration of that event. 

Objectives:

Students who participate in this activity will learn about one aspect of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States--the battle over desegregating the public schools--by studying the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Access to print materials about desegregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and Central High School.

Procedures:

1.  Students in today's schools have only a sketchy idea--if they have one at all--about the civil rights struggles in American that occurred twenty or thirty years before their birth.  Therefore, it will probably be necessary to begin this activity with some background on the era, both from web sites (some of which are listed below), from text materials, and from library books and other materials.

2.  When students have a general knowledge about the time period, have them focus on school desegregation as one aspect of the overall Civil Rights Movement.  Beginning with an understanding of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, students can be introduced to the particular case of Little Rock's Central High School, which is illustrative of the effort to desegregate schools in the years following Brown.

3.  The web sites listed below have been selected especially to provide both primary and secondary resources for historical research on the desegregation of Central High School.  Students may be organized in various ways:  they may understand the research in small groups, they may do pieces of the research individually, they may form topical "committees"--but first, let them wander around in these websites for a bit, becoming familiar with sub-topics and resources that interest them.

4.  When they have "wandered around" enough (perhaps one class period), discuss with them the following questions:

  • What were the underlying issues in the desegregation of Central High School?
  • Who were the major "players" in this drama?
  • What themes keep reappearing in the material, particularly in contemporary newspaper accounts, both from the local papers and from the school paper?
  • What were the major arguments for and against desegregating Central High School?
  • What was the role of President Eisenhower in the desegregation of Central High School?
  • How did desegregation proceed after the TV cameras and the National Guard left?
  • What happened to the "Little Rock Nine"?
  • What can we "take away" from this experience that is useful to us today?  (For an interesting perspective on this question, see President Clinton's speech on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the event).

5.  When the research is complete, students can demonstrate knowledge and understanding in several ways: they can produce a "newspaper" about the event; they can do a series of PowerPoint presentations to explain the event to younger (elementary) students; they can write formal research papers on aspects of the event; they can write biographies of major "players" in the event; they could write a play about the event (which, of course, would take longer than a week!), they could produce a website about the event (the excellent Civil War site, Valley of the Shadow, might be an interesting model), etc.  It is suggested that, after students have become immeresed in the research for a while, they participate in the decision of "what to do" with the material.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson could be extended with a website (above), or by going on to study the other similar desegregation court cases that came after Brown.

Sources & Resources:

Websites:

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Library of Congress, American Memory: The Civil Rights Era

The Fight for Desegregation

School Integration at Little Rock

History of Little Rock Public Schools Desegregation

The Central High Crisis: Pages from Local Newspapers

The 40th Anniversary of Desegregation in Little Rock

President Clinton's Speech at the 40th Anniversary Celebration

 

Credits:

This lesson was designed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.