- Remember Little Rock by Erin Krutko Devlin
Focusing much needed attention on public memories of the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock's Central High School, Erin Krutko Devlin's Remember Little Rock serves as a powerful reminder of the contemporary limits of civil rights-era achievements. In five well-paced chapters and a conclusion, Remember Little Rock chronicles the afterlife of integration at Central High as it played out locally in Arkansas and in various political, social, and legal realms throughout the United States. Devlin argues that a "triumphal narrative of passive progress" dominates public memories of the civil rights era (p. 3). This narrative, Devlin explains, has important political and legal implications as it effectively masks the nation's enduring problems of racial injustice and inequality and gives the false impression that the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision has been successfully implemented in school districts throughout the United States.
Devlin begins the important work of dismantling this celebratory narrative by pointing out key distinctions in the meaning of "successful integration" as defined by southern school administrators and civil rights activists. Using Superintendent Virgil T. Blossom's It HAS Happened Here (1959) and local NAACP leader Daisy Bates's The Long Shadow of Little Rock (1962) as lenses into the desegregation crisis, Devlin reveals a pattern of "passive resistance" among local school administrators (p. 20). Unlike those who joined the campaign of massive resistance and protested vocally in front schools selected [End Page 133] for integration, Blossom and other administrators worked to curb the scale and scope of desegregation by meeting minimal compliance guidelines and by discouraging African American students from participating in the voluntary transfer programs that initially facilitated integration.
Remember Little Rock expands its focus to policy decisions related to education and equality at the state and federal levels. During the debates over the constitutionality of busing in the 1970s, activists invoked imagery associated with the Little Rock Nine "to draw historical parallels between the events of 1957 and 1974" (p. 51). Yet, with this and other instances of civil rights activism to follow, critics attempted to challenge or minimize the connection to past battles over inequality, and instead, emphasize the progress that had been since the passage of Brown. This narrative of "passive" (i.e. in the past) progress, Devlin persuasively argues, has allowed many to envision cotemporary inequality as a new struggle unrelated to the civil rights activism of the late 1950s and early 1960s (p. 47).
At times, Devlin explains, this limited understanding of the Little Rock crisis and the larger civil rights movement bled into books and films about the contentious struggle to integrate Central High. Though books and televised films like Crisis at Central (1981) brought the story of integration effort to national audiences, they were narrated from the perspective of whites; reflections of the actual Little Rock Nine were conspicuously absent. By focusing attention on the actual students who helped to integrate Central High, Remember Little Rock sheds light on these fundamental perspectives of the 1957 crisis. Yet, Devlin misses an important opportunity to assess public remembrance of the event by failing to discuss public appearances of the Little Rock Nine and the students who once opposed their presence at Central High. Also absent is discussion of the "reconciliation" photograph and meetings of Elizabeth Eckford (one of the Little Rock Nine) and Hazel Bryan Massery (a white student who protested integration) that marked the 40th anniversary of desegregation at Central High. Given Devlin's attention to the progressive celebratory narrative of the [End Page 134] integration crisis along with her discussion of Eckford's hesitance to participate in ceremonies commemorating the event, it is surprising that these tensions were left unexplored.
Yet these omissions should not detract from the larger significance of Remember Little Rock. In a compelling conclusion, Delvin presents the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site as a space that exists "at the intersection between public memory and educational policy" (p. 179). Because this site also serves as...