If only “An Epitaph for Little Rock” would be the last look back at the Little Rock school crisis for a good while. After a year bursting with 50th anniversary events, this collection of essays (University of Arkansas Press, paper, $17.95), some dating to the 1960s, arrives to something less than eager anticipation. Do we really want to eat another bite of that particular cake?
But the collection, edited by British historian John A. Kirk and with a foreword by journalist Juan Williams, offers many a useful perspective with contemporary value.
The essays were drawn mostly from the Arkansas Historical Quarterly. The federally enforced desegregation of Central High School hadn’t even reached its 10th anniversary when Numan V. Bartley wrote of the failure of government leaders.
There are many selections worthy of note. Roy Reed’s essay on Gov. Orval Faubus’ roots and the betrayal of his socialist father’s beliefs illuminates a slice of Arkansas history with almost TV-sharp images. Editor Kirk’s own essay on postwar black activism is important because so much of the Central crisis history over the years was written by and about white people.
The book closes with an important valedictory by Southern Arkansas University historian Ben F. Johnson. The recent anniversary events celebrated the heroes of 1957-59 and tended to obscure the decades that followed of de facto school segregation, calculated segregation in housing and, when the courts would countenance resistance no longer, the establishment of the private Pulaski Academy. That fueled the segregated march of well-to-do whites to the western edge of town. Historic Central High stands today as a tattered crown amidst acres of decay, its doors too often opening to hundreds of black children whose test scores are no testament to what was achieved there.
The UA Press rightly views such history as important work. It has two other recent titles on the subject. One is a paperback edition of Elizabeth Jacoway’s “Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation.” The other, more important, is “With All Deliberate Speed: Implementing Brown v. Board of Education.” The book, edited by Brian J. Daugherity and Charles C. Bolton, is an assessment of desegregation in 12 states by accomplished historians, including UALR’s Johanna Miller Lewis.