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Shades of Gray at 'Little Rock 9' Reunion

Race: Blacks who broke Central High color barrier 40 years ago return today.


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The first time Terrence Roberts stepped into Little Rock Central High School for a whole day, it took a wall of bayonet-toting paratroopers to protect him from a seething mob.

Today Roberts will enjoy a different escort into the tan brick building that 40 years ago was symbolic of all the agony of race relations in America: President Clinton, the governor and mayor plan to hold open the front doors for nine middle-aged African Americans who once risked their lives to enroll in an all-white school.

"There were days when I was just scared out of my wits," recalled Roberts, a clinical psychologist and professor who now lives in Pasadena. "And there were days when things were milder. But always there was this aura of danger."

Four decades later, Little Rock is still struggling to make sense of what happened in those first stormy days of desegregation--and how it should look upon the state of racial justice in the 1990s. All week, the capital city has been the site of rallies, vigils and other events involving the "Little Rock Nine."

Community leaders have unveiled a history exhibit inside a defunct gasoline station. There even is a Web site featuring details of the 1957-58 school year and this week's calendar of activities.

Amid all the hoopla and media attention, however, some residents worry that a bright spotlight on the past will only inflame old wounds. Others complain that the flurry of activity has taken on a festive atmosphere, when a range of ongoing problems, including white flight from the school district, is cause for concern.

Indeed, some activists plan to protest the ceremony: "I'll be the one carrying the sign that says 'Racism is alive and well in Little Rock,"' declared Michael Booker, a state representative and attorney.

Many here are proud of Central High, a five-story Gothic edifice that covers two city blocks and greets visitors with goddess-like symbols of "ambition, personality, opportunity and preparation." The main hallway, which students have recently shared with Secret Service agents and camera crews from as far away as the Netherlands, features display cases of athletic trophies. One banner proclaims, "We've got the power," and is marked with tiger paws, a reference to the school teams' mascot.

Yet Central is hardly removed from the sorts of problems that plague urban high schools throughout the country.

"I saw security guards and it was like, 'What in the world?' I'd never seen that in school before," recalled Lauren Hyden, 16, who switched to Central from one of the private academies that educate perhaps half the white students in the district. "But once I got used to it," she said of Central, "I loved it."

By all accounts, black and white students coexist easily enough, although genuine after-school friendships are not typical. A majority of the high school's students--and the Little Rock school district's--are black, 58% this year. And many students applaud the racial diversity.

"I think it's OK that the school is mixed," said Mario Latham, a black honors student who moved to Little Rock from Iowa to be around more students of his race.

Still, 40 years after the tortured process of desegregation began--a process that then-Gov. Orval E. Faubus attempted to block with the state's National Guard, prompting President Dwight D. Eisenhower to dispatch federal troops--the awareness of racial differences remains acute.

Advanced placement courses are attended by predominantly white students, although half the black students are college bound, slightly below the level of whites.

"I showed my friends my schedule and they're like, 'Man, you've got a lot of white kids in your class,' " Latham recalled.

For many of Little Rock's older residents, the desegregation anniversary has been more a dizzying catharsis than a simple celebration, a testament to all the emotion that continues to surround issues of race.

Hazel Massery, the subject of a long-ago newspaper photograph as a bitter 15-year-old white girl hurling a racial slur, this week told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette: "I look at it [the old photograph] and there's a lot of surprise for me that I could ever have done that. But it is me. And I feel . . . shame."

Another white woman who attended Central High School in the 1950s expressed deep misgivings about the focus on past injustice, as well as misgivings about her own feelings: "I worry that all the publicity, all the hoopla, will stir things up again. . . . I'm wondering, what are they going to do for the 50th anniversary? You can just say, 'I'm sorry' so many times. Does that sound terrible?"

For the nine student-pioneers, now in their mid-50s, their almost worshipful greeting by Little Rock officials has been a remarkable experience.

Most escaped the region long ago, driven out by threats of violence, economic reprisals against their families and a climate of prejudice.

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