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What Little Rock school confrontation did to the US legal system

The Little Rock Crisis: A Constitutional Interpretation, by Tony Freyer. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. 186 pp. $27.50. In 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States abolished segregation in the public schools as an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment. It also overthrew an almost 60-year-old ``separate but equal'' doctrine, which had held that separate facilities for separate races were within the law as long as they were equal facilities.

Last year, civil rights groups, academic institutions, and others celebrated the 30th anniversary of the landmark school integration decision -- Brown v. Board of Education. They also used this occasion to point up the fact that race discrimination -- in schools, in the workplace, and in other areas of society -- still exists. And it was stressed in many forums that a basic understanding of social justice and a resulting change of attitudes had to accompany progressive legislation and litigation to bring about effective and lasting racial equality.

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Of late, the controversy over busing to achieve racial balance in Northern schools has almost obscured the underlying legal and moral principles of desegregation. Antibusing legislation, state ballot initiatives, and maneuvers within the courts indicate the depth of emotion in many areas against transporting children away from neighborhood schools to comply with legal mandates that racial percentages in the classroom mirror those of the community.

What is not clear is whether resistance to busing is really a smoke screen that obscures underlying and deep-felt opposition to school desegregation in the North. Although the social history, the folkways, and the articulated attitudes toward blacks certainly differ from one side to the other of the Mason-Dixon line, racism tends to linger on both sides.

The saga of Little Rock -- and the ultimately unsuccessful struggle of its local leaders to preserve segregated schools after the Brown decision -- have over the years become national symbols of the civil rights debate.

However, behind the symbols there were other issues and lessons to be learned. Society is still struggling with many of these. Tony Freyer, a history and law professor at the University of Alabama, takes a scholarly look at the Little Rock crisis. He ably chronicles events leading up to the globally reported confrontation, when the governor used National Guard troops to block nine black children from entering Central High School, and to the ultimate implementation of integration in the city's schools as a result of a 1959 Supreme Court decision.

Freyer, however, does more than responsible legal reporting. He delves into underlying issues of states' rights and use of police powers, as opposed to federal responsibility and assertion of judicial power. And he sets this against a background of discussion of community values, local fiscal policy, and the inner workings of grass-roots politics. These forces, the author shows, strongly influenced both the proponents and opponents of desegregation, dictated the direction and pace of local school board integration plans, and prompted the responses of the Eisenhower administration. They also transformed Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus from a progressive -- who at one time worked to assimilate blacks into the work force and other elements of society -- to a hardened segregationist, resisting school integration almost to the end.

Assessing the overall effect of Little Rock, Freyer points out that the ``changes in attitude [regarding segregation] were significant -- but essentially conservative.

``As for the intrinsic worth of racial justice as a moral principle, it was obscured in controversy over legalism and administrative forms,'' he says.

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In the end, Freyer quotes author Richard Kluger: ``Law in a democracy must contend with reality. It has to persuade. It has to induce compliance by its appeal to shared human values and social goals.'' Freyer stresses that in Little Rock moderate conservatism triumphed over moral principles. ``This triumph,'' he says, ``virtually assured that a more meaningful fulfillment of the nation's democratic and constitutional ideals would demand greater commitment and striving.''

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column. -- 30 --{et

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