But 50 years later, integration hasn't led to income equality for the city's blacks.
Little Rock, Ark.
Fifty years after nine African-American students marched through the doors of Little Rock Central High School, a key moment in the civil rights movement, the school and this city are holding a celebration.
The Little Rock Nine – as they are called – have returned to mark the occasion this week. The high school itself, ranked as the 26th best high school in America by Newsweek magazine, has pointed with pride to its integrated student body: 53 percent blacks and 40 percent whites. But amid the festivities, there's a lingering recognition that the larger goals of school integration have not been met.
Equality of education – especially up to the high school level – has not translated into economic equality. Integrated schools have not stopped Little Rock, like many cities in the South, from further segregating in terms of where whites and blacks live.
"We're going to move forward," said Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, during a press conference Sunday that expressed the mixture of optimism and frustration that many in the African-American community feel. "The issue is, how do we move forward in a way that is inclusive rather than exclusive? And so we're not 100 percent happy, but that just means we've got to ... work harder."
The educational gains that African-Americans have made in Little Rock are dramatic. In 1950, seven years before federal troops escorted the Little Rock Nine into Central High over the objections of then Gov. Orval Faubus, blacks had far less schooling than their white counterparts. Only 11 percent of the city's nonwhite adults had finished four years of high school, compared with 26 percent citywide, according to census data. Today, that gap has almost disappeared: 86 percent of black adults have a high school diploma compared with 91 percent for the city overall. Those gains mirror the national trend.
But educational achievement remains a problem. At Central High, for example, 83 percent of white juniors scored "proficient" or better on standardized tests in 2006 compared with only 28 percent of African-American juniors. Some charge that the school's abundant advanced placement courses, which are popular with white students but not with African-Americans, separate the races.