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Arkansas' Central High School, Then and Now

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Integration of Little Rock Central High, we risk focusing too much attention on the past and not enough on the present. That's the message of a powerful new HBO documentary, "Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later."

Filmmakers Craig and Brent Renaud visited Central earlier this year to see if the school and the city have managed to move past that fateful day half a century ago. With them for the journey was one of the Little Rock Nine, Minnijean Brown-Trickey. All three join me now.

Welcome.

Ms. MINNIJEAN BROWN-TRICKEY (Member, Little Rock Nine): Thank you.

Mr. CRAIG RENAUD (Co-Director, "Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later"): Hi. Thank you for having us.

CHIDEYA: So Minnijean, let me start with you. The beginning of the film is really wrenching when you are outside of Central High - a very emotional moment. So what were you feeling then and how have your feelings about the day that you walked first to Central changed over the years?

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: Well, I guess it depends on the day. Often, I'm outside that and very cool. And the day we did that filming, it just touched me in a way that I was - that was unexpected. So I'm open to feeling it as deeply as I need to.

CHIDEYA: So Craig, you went to Central. What year did you graduate?

Mr. C. RENAUD: I graduated in 1992 from Central High School.

CHIDEYA: When you made this film, how did it help you make sense of what happened to Central during Minnijean's era and then what you saw today when you went into the classrooms?

Mr. C. RENAUD: Well, you know, when you're in high school at Central High School, you're certainly aware of the legacy of the school, but at the same time, I think there's a lot of things that are going on around you that as a high school student, you're not necessarily processing. And coming back as an adult, you know, made me realize a lot of things that were apparent when I was in school there but I wasn't noticing, you know?

And I think the scene with Minniejean at the end of the film, when she is speaking to the students in the classroom and is disturbed because the class is segregated with white students on one side of the classroom and African-American students on the other side, and realizing that the students in that class just feel like that's the way it is and not recognizing the connection to our history and why our society is that way. And I think going back there as an adult and having your life experiences as adult and going back, you see those type of things by coming back to the school.

CHIDEYA: So Brent, you and Craig followed several different kids around the school - white, black, rich, poor. Segregation still exists per that previous example, but how is it different now than it was?

Mr. BRENT RENAUD (Co-Director, "Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later"): You know, it's different because, you know, black and white students go to the school together, you know? We certainly don't want to imply that things are not better. There's also a lot of very committed people. As you see, there's teachers and white students who, basically, they all want the same thing. Theoretically, the hatred that existed there where you're going to spit on the people and you don't even want to be in the same classroom with them. Thankfully that is over.

But there is a risk of just concentrating on how far we've come and not looking at how far we still have to go. And we're not experts on education. So, really, what we decided to do was to go on to the school, pick a nice cross-section of kids - very different life experiences, very different backgrounds - and let them tell the story of what Central is like for them today.

CHIDEYA: Let's take a look at one student, Brandon. He is black. He's the new student body president, but he also lives in a wealthy, white neighborhood, has mainly white friends. Does that really speak to racial segregation or is some of the segregation at the school economic?

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: They're both. I worry about Brandon because - not him personally, but what he represent - this exceptional, well-off black kid and the burden he must carry being that kid.

There are class issues, but they're overridden by race, I think. And I'm willing to state that unequivocally that even the class thing is about race. I mean, it's all about race and racism - to me. And that's the really sad part. But really recently, a black family moved into a suburban neighborhood, and they got hate mail - you don't belong here, go where you belong. So there are some real belief systems that contradict our sort of rhetoric about freedom and justice and…

CHIDEYA: Let me play a clip from the film for you. It's from one of the classes that you gentlemen set in on and a white teacher speaking to her predominantly African-American students.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Teacher, Central High School): Raise your hand for me if you know someone in your family. If you have one of them, go to jail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1 (Student, Central High School): Oh.

Unidentified Woman #1: How many of your friends have been killed?

Unidentified Woman #2 (Student, Central High School): My uncle, it was a gang-related. He got shot from his bathroom (unintelligible) his front yard and my other uncle was also killed.

Unidentified Man #2(Student, Central High School): I had a brother who got - it was in the middle of a drug deal and he was tied and beaten, burned to death.

Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, my God.

CHIDEYA: So Craig and Brent, how does this get to the heart of somebody's issues of the intersection of racing class that we were just talking about?

Mr. C. RENAUD: It's one example. I think one positive thing that has happened in Central, particularly this year, is that because this is the 50th anniversary and because, again, the world's attention's going to be on Little Rock, it has spurred a lot of discussion about racial issues throughout the city and throughout the classroom. And it really brought the conversation to the surface.

It was forcing people to really deal with a lot of issues that maybe even in another places of the country sometimes go on and discuss altogether. In this particular class, the teacher asked the students, you know, how many of you know someone who's in jail. And every kid in the class raised their hands. And this is just one of the scenes that I think the point is that there are a lot of people who, growing up under conditions in dealing with things that don't allow them to concentrate as much as they could otherwise on education.

CHIDEYA: Minnijean, when you watched some of the conversations in this film between black students, there was an argument where one kid was like, it's all society that's crushing us. And another one said - these are both black students in an all black class - you know, the world was not set up to keep black people down. How do you resolve the whole question of personal responsibility that comes out when you talk about the ugly side of race and achievement in America?

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: But we're looking at a social structure that keeps them apart, keeps them from interacting and having those kinds of conversations that would demystify those so-called differences. So I think that's what my concern is, is that we continue to watch our children act out legacies that we gained them from another time. Those kids are in great distress - white, black. They need some real sort of understanding of what they're dealing with from really effective teachers who can facilitate some of those conversations.

I mean, we have to go a little bit further than the 50-minute class, can talk about whose family has been damaged by some kind of violence. This is about social distress that is debilitating, that is destructive, that is in some ways violent. What the film showed is the kids really are sort of left on their own resources, trying to solve some of this problems and I'm disturbed about that.

CHIDEYA: Well, Minnijean, Craig and Brent, thank you so much.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: Thank you.

Mr. C. RENAUD: Thank you.

Mr. B. RENAUD: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Minnijean Brown Tricky is one of the original Little Rock Nine. She served as deputy assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior for President Clinton and today, she continues to live and work in Little Rock. Craig and Brent Renaud directed "Little Rock Central: 50 Years Late." It premiers this week on HBO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.