Historically, Arkansas belongs firmly to the South. It sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War and its capital, Little Rock, was, in 1957, one of the most notorious flashpoints in the struggle for civil rights. Geographically, however, it marks the beginning of the Great Plains. Unlike the Southern states on the east side of the Mississippi River, Arkansas (the correct pronunciation, following a state law from 1881, is “Arkansaw”) remained sparsely populated until the late nineteenth century. Westward expansion was blocked by the existence of the Indian Territory in what’s now Oklahoma, and not until the railroads opened up the forested interior during the 1880s did settlers stray in any numbers from their riverside villages. Only once the Depression and mechanization had forced thousands of farmers to leave their fields did Arkansas begin to develop any significant industrial base. In 1992 local boy Bill Clinton’s accession to the presidency catapulted Arkansas to national prominence.
Though Arkansas encompasses the Mississippi Delta in the east, oil-rich timber lands in the south, and the sweeping Ouachita (“Wash-ih-taw”) Mountains in the west, the cragged and charismatic Ozark Mountains in the north are its most scenic asset, abounding with parks, lakes, rivers and streams, and a couple of alternative little towns that make welcoming places to stay.Read More
Confrontation at Central High
Confrontation at Central High
In 1957, Little Rock unexpectedly became the battleground in the first major conflict between state and federal government over race relations. At the time, the city was generally viewed as progressive by Southern standards. All parks, libraries and buses were integrated, a relatively high thirty percent of blacks were on the electoral register and there were black police officers. However, when the Little Rock School Board announced its decision to phase in desegregation gradually – the Supreme Court having declared segregation of schools to be unconstitutional – James Johnson, a candidate for governor, started a campaign opposing interracial education. Johnson’s rhetoric began to win him support, and the incumbent governor, Orval Faubus, who had previously shown no interest in the issue, jumped on the bandwagon himself.
The first nine black students were due to enter Central High School that September. The day before school opened, Faubus, “in the interest of safety”, reversed his decision to let blacks enrol, only to be overruled by the federal court. He ordered state troopers to bar the black students anyway; soldiers with bayonets forced Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine, from the school entrance into a seething crowd, from which she had to jump on a bus to escape. As legal battles raged during the day, at night blacks were subject to violent attacks by white gangs. Three weeks later, President Eisenhower reluctantly brought in the 101st Airborne Division, and, amid violent demonstrations, the nine entered the school. That year, they experienced intense intimidation; when one retaliated, she was expelled. The graduation of James Green, the oldest, seemed to put an end to the affair, but Faubus, up for re-election, renewed his political posturing by closing down all Little Rock’s public schools for the 1958–59 academic year – and thereby increased his majority. Today Central High School – an enormous brown, crescent-shaped structure at 1500 S Park Ave, bearing no little resemblance to a fortress – is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated as a National Park site. Across the street, at 2125 Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive, the Central High Visitor Centre (daily 9am–4.30pm, Sun 1–4.30pm; free; w www.nps.gov/chsc/), on the spot from which reporters filed stories on the only public payphone in the neighbourhood, has a good exhibition about the crisis.