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Lessons from Little Rock

It was shortly after 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and Little Rock’s River Market was hopping. As I walked to the Darragh Center in the main libary, where I have heard so many lectures through the years, I thought about the number of fascinating speakers who pass through Little Rock.

It’s amazing for a city this size.

The Central Arkansas Library System and its Butler Center for Arkansas Studies bring a stream of well-known speakers to the city. Meanwhile, the lecture series sponsored by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service has become, in my opinion, the greatest cultural amenity the city offers. In fact, I will leave soon after writing this post to hear Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian ambassdor to the United States, speak during lunch at the Clinton School.

On Tuesday night, the Butler Center welcomed Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine. After leaving Little Rock Central High School, Dr. Roberts graduated from California State University, received a master’s degree from UCLA and earned his doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University.

Dr. Roberts, who owns a management consulting firm in California, has appeared on numerous national televison and radio programs to talk about racial issues in America. He was in Little Rock last night to promote his new book, “Lessons from Little Rock,” which has just been released by the relatively new books division of the Butler Center. He was a delightful speaker — upbeat, humorous, insightful.

As I looked around the room last night, a thought struck me: The crowd was almost equally divided between blacks and whites. Based on their questions and comments, these all appeared to be thoughtful, engaged people — people concerned about the state’s largest city, keenly aware of its past and determined to work toward a bright future for our children and grandchildren.

Even though the black percentage and white percentage of the Little Rock population is almost the same, it is rare to see a crowd at any event in Little Rock that is so evenly mixed. Think about it. They say that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America, and that’s true. Blacks tend to go to their churches, and whites go to their churches. This is not to argue that it’s a bad thing. It’s merely to point out the obvious.

Due to the increased migration of white children in Little Rock to private schools, even athletic events have become segregated for the most part. The home crowd at a Pulaski Academy, Little Rock Christian or Little Rock Catholic football game is almost all white. The home crowd at a Little Rock Central, Little Rock McClellan, Little Rock Parkview or Little Rock Hall football game is mostly black. That’s not to pass judgment. My own sons are in Catholic schools. It’s to point out the fact.

So the even mix of the audience last night — and the fact that such even mixes are rare here — made me think about issues confronting not only our city but our entire society. I’m still sorting those thoughts out in my mind and not prepared to write about them here. But merely being at the Darragh Center last night got me to thinking about issues I normally wouldn’t be thinking about on a Tuesday night. And isn’t that the point of a lecture series?

In the audience last night was Elizabeth Eckford, forever made famous by that haunting photo of her walking down Park Street as Hazel Bryant screamed at her. As fate would have it, I opened the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning and found that photo reprinted on the editorial page.

It was one of the most famous American news photos for the entire decade of the 1950s. It was, for years, the image many Americans had of Little Rock.

In his book, Dr. Roberts writes: “The adjective most of us would quickly apply to Elizabeth is shy. We see her as one who would prefer not to be in the center of action. But, in our haste to label her, we miss the fact that she simply wants the time to herself to evaluate and analyze the situation as it emerges before her. When she does speak up it is with the voice of authority. Behind that veil of reticence to engage we find the proverbial steel-trap mind ready and able to take on all comers.”

As I left the main library last night, Ms. Eckford sat by herself on a bench by the front door, deep in thought. I didn’t bother her.

What an amazing city. Thank you Bobby Roberts at CALS and David Strickland at the Butler Center for the things you bring to our community. Thank you Skip Rutherford at the Clinton School for your lecture series. Far larger cities than this offer far less when it comes to speakers who make you think deeply about our state, our country, our world.

It’s time to go hear the Egyptian ambassador.

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