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Arkansas will become the nation’s 45th open carry state on August 15th of this year. This result arises from the Arkansas legislature’s enactment of HB 1700, a bill sponsored by Representative Denny Altes (R – Fort Smith) which amended Arkansas Code § 5-73-120 (Carrying a weapon).
Frustration over the Trayvon Martin case boils into a protest at 12th and Jefferson.
by David Koon
Nobody has to say it, but the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Two days after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of all charges in the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, with black America boiling over with frustration about the justice system, a Little Rock police officer shot and killed 26-year-old Deon Williams near the corner of 12th and Jefferson.
According to a LRPD release, just before noon on Monday, Officers Grant Humphries and Terry McDaniel saw a Chevy Suburban on 12th Street that they believed to be stolen. (Officials would later confirm that the truck was, in fact, not stolen.)
When the officers pulled the SUV over, police say, the driver jumped out and fled. McDaniel pursued on foot, while Humphries took off in the squad car, trying to cut Williams off. As McDaniel chased Deon Williams into the backyard of a house on Adams Street, a gun fell out of Williams’ waistband, according to the police. When Williams stopped to pick up the gun and turned toward McDaniel, the police narrative says, McDaniel feared for his life, and fired three times. Williams, who was paroled in May after serving two years in prison on charges of possession of a controlled substance and robbery, was pronounced dead at UAMS at 12:17 p.m.
McDaniel, a black officer, has used deadly force at least once before. He fatally shot a man who pulled a gun on him when interrupted during a daytime home burglary on Thayer Street last year. The burglar had earlier fatally shot one man and wounded another at the home.
Information about the shooting spread through social media. At 1 p.m., someone tweeted that the person killed by the police had been an 11-year-old boy, shot nine times in the back. A crowd of angry people began to gather at the Hess gas station on 12th street, just across from the crime scene.
By 1:30 p.m., the biggest swell of the crowd had grown to at least 200, simmering under the July sun. Dozens more watched from the parking lots of businesses and the yards of nearby houses. Several of the protestors closest to the sidewalk, where the police soon lined up in a black wall of uniforms, held signs that called for justice for Bobby Moore, the teenage burglar who was shot by LRPD officer Josh Hastings in August 2012 as Moore tried to flee a West Little Rock apartment complex. Hastings’ manslaughter trial in the case ended in a hung jury last month.
As the protest grew, crowding into the rectangle of shade under the awning of the gas station, the clerk at the station came to the door, ushered the last customers out, then locked it behind them, followed by a set of heavy steel bars. Soon, the neon beer signs in the windows went out, along with the lights inside. A man came to the doors and tugged on them. Another splashed ice tea against the glass, then threw the can against the doors. Kids with cell phones filmed him, waiting for something worthy of YouTube to happen, but instead he just walked away in disgust, disappearing back into the crowd.
Overhead, a state police chopper circled the intersection of 12th and Jefferson at 300 feet. At the edge of the crowd, people cursed it, many of them screaming obscenities at the sky and flipping the bird with both hands, trying to telegraph their anger and frustration to the pilot.
Ernest Franklin, president of Say Stop the Violence, was there, sweating into a suit coat as he walked among the crowds of angry young people in tank tops and shorts. He said he had talked to police on the scene, asking them to close 12th Street to keep curious drivers from driving by. Soon after we spoke, the street was blocked to most traffic.
“I’ve asked them to get somebody down here other than the police officers,” he said. “Right now, the whole nation, no matter where you go, they’re mad at the police. We do understand that the police officers have to do their job, but people are out here looking for justice and to get justice served, whatever that is going to take.”
The police brought in more squad cars, running them in almost bumper to bumper in the eastbound lane of 12th Street. “Nobody goes into the crowd,” an officer standing in the street said, and the word went on down the line. One man taunted the cops, saying, “What if it was your kid going down the alley? Y’all ain’t perfect.” Another man shouted, “Fuck America! That’s how I feel.”
Asa Muhammad was standing at the corner of 12th and Jefferson, watching investigators work across the street. A member of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad was at the Pulaski Country courthouse during the Josh Hastings trial.
“The police brutality and the police actions toward our people is not justice,” Muhammad said. “It doesn’t take the police gunning down our people to make an arrest or stop a crime … one shot or a taser to the leg could take a man down, but not a deadly force bullet to his heart or in his back to kill him. They’re professionals. They have tasers. They’re taught to shoot a weapon. But unfortunately, just like Bobby Moore was shot, this gentleman was shot. Another loss for our community.”
Muhammad said a lot of the anger on display had to do with the economic conditions many blacks find themselves in. “If our economic situation was better, and our people were afforded jobs to do better for themselves, then the vast majority of this wouldn’t be. But unfortunately, in this area, the vast majority of the people you see are unemployed. That has a great effect on what’s going on.”
More cops came. A roaring line of black and white Harley-Davidsons. A lumbering SWAT truck. Dozens of cops stretched their line down the turn lane of 12th Street, just behind the row of squad cars. Someone threw a can of soda, which sailed over the line and landed in the street.
Schwanda Daugherty was there in the edge of the crowd. “This is a community thing,” she said. “I’m here to support them even though I don’t know the young man. We’re out here, we’re going to protest, we’re going to show that we care. … There’s a lot of frustration. It’s happening, and we want everybody to know it’s happening. It’s a racial issue. It never went away, and it’s never going away. But we’re going to stand up and fight.”
As the afternoon wore on, tensions rose. At times, the crowd pushed forward toward the patrol cars, at others, they shrank back to the shade. A woman tried to get others to hold hands and form a human chain along the street, but was ignored until she gave up. Another woman in a gray halter-top shouted over the angry din of the crowd: “All we are to them is monkeys and dogs.” Someone threw a brown bottle that thumped in the grass on the other side of the street. The helicopter buzzed overhead, forgotten now that there were plenty of terrestrial cops to hate.
Then, walking along the edge of 12th Street, supported by friends, came a sobbing woman named Shemedia Shelton. Shelton was the owner of the Suburban Williams had been driving, and identified herself as Williams’ wife.
“You didn’t have to kill him,” she screamed. “Trayvon wasn’t enough? You didn’t have to fucking kill him. You didn’t have to kill him. You didn’t have to fucking kill him.”
Chastity Duffy, the woman supporting Shelton, said that they’d just picked Williams up from Tucker Penitentiary two months before.
“He was just trying to do what was right for his wife and kids,” Duffy said. “He didn’t do nothing.” At Duffy’s elbow, clinging there, shambling along in the sun toward the protest, Shelton wailed variations on a single sentence: “Can anybody tell me what I’m supposed to tell my kids?”
The heat came down, broken by periodic clouds. For three minutes, a burly cop stood in the door of a cruiser and spoke into a loudspeaker, telling the crowd to disperse, that they were participating in an unlawful assembly, that they would be arrested if they didn’t comply, saying it over and over like a machine. The crowd roared back at him, drowning him out with taunts and curses. There was a sense that something was going to happen. Eventually, the officer on the loudspeaker stopped, his voice replaced by that of a man who said he wasn’t a police officer, that he wanted to lead them to a park where they could continue the protest, that there would be a candlelight vigil that night they could attend. The crowd clenched into a fist before him and shouted him down too. Though a peaceful vigil would be held that night at the State Capitol, that moment was too angry and hot for talk of peace.
Police Chief Stuart Thomas appeared, along with City Manager Bruce Moore, both standing in front of the Family Dollar store across the street. Behind them, the shooting investigation started to wrap up. Police tape came down. A flatbed came for the Suburban Williams had been driving. Soon, the line of Harleys fired up and roared away, followed by most of the squad cars, some making a slow U-turn in the street.
Across the street, Chief Thomas spoke to the press, pulling further back when the chants of “fuck the police” became loud enough for the mics to pick them up and spoil a quote. “As we were working the case, a lot of information got out,” Thomas said. “People were a little bit misinformed about the circumstances … it just kind of built up from there. There are a lot of other issues at play, both locally and nationally.” A minute later, someone shouted “Look out!” as a full plastic bottle came out of the crowd, over the street, and over Thomas’s head — a hail-Mary lob that would have done any quarterback proud. The bottle splattered eight feet away in the parking lot, next to a snarl of police tape.
“It is what it is,” Thomas said of being the target of the bottle. “It’ll calm down when we’re out of here.”
Soon after, the last of the cops pulled away, and the crowd soon did as Thomas had predicted. By the time the TV stations did their 5 p.m. live shots from the corner of 12th and Jefferson, there was just a single man in a white T-shirt, holding a sign. Once the cameras turned off, he disappeared, too.
Standing on the corner, watching people buy gas at the Hess station and 12th street roll full of cars again, it was hard to believe the anger of the day had ever happened. Then a woman pulled up to the herd of TV trucks and rolled down her window. “What is it,” she asked, “open season on black people?”
Events marking the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School by nine African-American schoolchildren started weeks ago, but here's what's happening in the five-day run-up to the commemoration ceremony on Sept. 25 and in days following.
'Education by Design: The History and Design of Little Rock Central High School and Dunbar Jr./Sr. High School.'
6 p.m. Dunbar Magnet Middle School, 1100 Wright Ave., preceded by 5 p.m. reception at Pyramid Art, Books and Custom Framing, 1001 Wright Ave., and 5:50 p.m. unveiling of works by Dunbar and Central High School students in the Dunbar Sculpture Garden behind the school building. Free.
The architecture of the Central High School (opened in 1927) and Dunbar (1929) — both the work of Little Rock's Wittenberg and Deloney firm — and how the design was meant to meet educational goals will be the subject of this talk by Little Rock architect Kwendeche and architectural historian Mason Toms, design coordinator for Main Street Arkansas. The event is part of the June Freeman Lecture Series of the Architecture + Design Network and the University of Central Arkansas's "Imagine if Buildings Could Talk: Mapping the History of Little Rock Central High School" project. (See Sept. 23 and 24 events.)
Performance by the CORE Dance Company.
Noon-1 p.m. Arkansas Arts Center Atrium. Free.
CORE, the Atlanta-based dance company whose "Life Interrupted" work was about the internment of Japanese Americans in Arkansas camps during World War II, returns to Arkansas for more site-specific choreographed performances. At the Arts Center, the company will perform in conjunction with the exhibit "Will Counts: The Central High School Photographs," a collection of the famous shots photographic journalist in 1957, including his world-famous picture of Elizabeth Eckford being heckled by white students. The company,
'William Grant Still's Neglected Masterpiece "Troubled Island." '
7 p.m. Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Free.
Opera in the Rock will perform William Grant Still's "Troubled Island," an opera in three acts about the Haitian revolution, with libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey. Still completed the opera in 1939; its world premiere was March 31, 1949. It ran only three nights; Still was told by a friend that the critics voted to pan the opera because "the colored boy has gone far enough." The composer, who was raised in Little Rock, was the first African-American to conduct a major U.S. orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic). Another first: "Troubled Island" was the first grand opera by an African-American composer to be produced by a major American company, the New York City Opera. Vocalists performing this concert version of Still's opera are Ronald Jensen-McDaniel, Nisheedah Golden, Kenneth Gaddie, Satia Spencer, Candice Harris, Christopher Straw and LaSheena Gordon, with accompaniment by Janine Tiner. Earlier in the day, Arlene Biebesheimer, Opera in the Rock's Artistic Director, will talk about Still's work as part of a noontime "Lunch and Learn" session, also at Mosaic Templars, featuring a selection of recordings of Still's compositions.
Dedication of 'United' Sculpture
1:30 p.m., front lawn of Central High School. Free.
The 2016 Sculpture at the River Market Public Monument Competition donated this sculpture to Central High to mark the 60th anniversary of its desegregation. The work, "United," by Colorado Springs sculptor Clay Enoch, features two figures facing one another and holding incomplete rings. The unjoined rings indicate that there is still progress to be made in race relations, the artist says.
'Civil Twilight: Reflections on Fear,
5-7 p.m. Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Commemorative Garden, 2120 Daisy L. Bates Drive. Free.
The CORE Performance Company has created a dance/spoken word event, in collaboration with local poets Leron McAdoo and Marcus Montgomery and the Central High Wrighteous Poetry Club to commemorate the desegregation of Central. This is an open rehearsal; the main performance will be at 6 p.m. Sept. 24, as part of the ACANSA Arts Festival.
Central High Tigers Football Game
7 p.m. Quigley Stadium.
The Tigers take on North Little Rock Wildcats.
March for Education
8 a.m. from the "Testament" sculpture of the Little Rock Nine on the grounds of the state Capitol to Central High.
The march, sponsored by
Paul Laurence Dunbar Community Festival, "The Power of Us through Community, History, and Art."
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Dunbar Magnet School, 1100 Wright Ave. Free.
This third annual festival, sponsored by the Dunbar Historic Neighborhood Association, features a health fair, children's activities, Zumba with Miss Lady Magazine, 3 on 3 basketball tournament, Dunbar history exhibit, Dunbar garden tours, Horace Mann alumni oral histories, a poetry slam, an "Old Town Motown Social," food and more.
'Reflections of Progress' symposium
9 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Clinton Presidential Center Great Hall. Free.
Circuit Judge Wiley A. Branton Jr., son of the civil rights leader who led desegregation efforts in the 1940s and beyond in Arkansas, is the opening speaker in this symposium in which panels will discuss the events leading up to the 1957 crisis, the "Lost Years" of 1957-1959, and 1959 to present.
'Imagine the Inclusive School of the Future Art Contest'
9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Central High Visitor Center. Free.
Juried exhibit of work by students in grades 6-12 at Bryant High School, Conway High School, Episcopal Collegiate School, Lake Hamilton High School, Lisa Academy, Central High, Pulaski Heights Middle School, Southside High School (Fort Smith) and St. Joseph Catholic School (Paris), sponsored by the University of Central Arkansas's College of Fine Arts and Communication.
'A Day of Remembrance: The 60th Commemoration of the Desegregation Crisis at Little Rock Central High School.'
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Hampton Building, 1102 Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive.
Bi-annual youth summit sponsored by the John Cain Foundation and the New Africa Alliance with presentations by poet Chris James and others.
Moncrief Institute for College and Career Readiness Forum
Noon-2 p.m. Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.
Former Razorback basketball star Sidney Moncrief's nonprofit Moncrief Game Changer will lead Q&A and small group discussions on banking, education, insurance, entrepreneurship and other topics with high school and college students. Lunch will be served. Registration required; email email@example.com.
Central High School Architectural History Bus Tours
Noon-5:30 p.m. Central High Visitor Center. Tickets free; reserve by calling 450-3451.
See and hear about important sites and their architectural styles in the Central High neighborhood, from the homes of Ernest Green and Daisy and L.C. Bates to the historic Magnolia/Mobil service station across from Central High and more. Buses leave at on the hour from noon to 4 p.m. for the 90-minute tours, developed by historians Dr. Kimberly Little of UCA and Mark Christ and Kylee Cole of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. Repeated at same hours Sunday, Sept. 24.
High school and college student ensemble performances
Noon-6 p.m. Magnolia/Mobil service station. Free.
High school and college student singers will fill the outdoor stage at the restored gas station across from Central High, a project coordinated by UCA and the Oxford American Literary Protect. Hear the UCA Dixieland Band at noon; the Mann Middle School Band, 1 p.m.; the Dunbar Middle School Band, 2 p.m.; the North Little Rock High School Band, 3 p.m.; the Parkview Jazz Band, 4 p.m.; and the Central High School Band, 5 p.m.
'Imagine the Inclusive School of the Future' award ceremony
4-5 p.m. Central High Visitor Center. Free.
While the students sing at the Magnolia/Mobil station outside, winning artworks in the exhibition, sponsored by UCA, will be announced.
Oxford American Jazz Series: 'No Tears Suite'
6 p.m. Magnolia/Mobil Station Station. Free.
This 30-minute jazz ensemble "pop-up" concert features pianist Little Rock Chris Parker's composition, inspired by Melba Pattillo Beals' memoir "Warriors Don't Cry" about her experience as one of the Little Rock Nine. Local jazz artists joining Parker for the performance are: bassist Bill Huntington, drummer Brian Blade, tenor saxophonist Bobby LaVell, trumpeter Marc Franklin, alto saxophonist Chad Fowler and vocalists Kelley Hurt and I/J. Routen. Following the suite's premiere, the ensemble will take on works by Pharoah Sanders, Charles Mingus, John Stubblefield and Sam Rivers.
'Imagine if Buildings Could Talk' video projection and music
7:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Central High School façade.
Imagine, if you can, a video projected on the school's facade that uses special effects to transform the entrance with vivid color, animates the statues over the front entrance (representing ambition, personality,
'Mavis Staples Live.'
7-9 p.m. Robinson Center. $45-$65, available through Ticketmaster.
Mavis Staples has been singing about civil rights, Jesus and what it means to an African-American in the South since she was a child in Mississippi. She went on to fame as part of the Staple Singers with her father, Pops Staples, and siblings, and because of that fame, her website tells us, they weren't lynched when they were falsely accused of a robbery at a West Memphis gas station — the police chief recognized them. Stax-era recordings "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself" and her moving "Down in Mississippi" bring down any house; she's an artist you've got to see and if her rousing concert at Christ Church Episcopal in 2013 was any indication, she's still got it in spades. Before Mavis comes on, a community choir will set the joyful mood. The event is a fundraiser for the Little Rock Nine Foundation, a mentorship program for young people.
ACANSA gospel brunch
11 a.m. Wildwood Park for the Arts, 20919 Denny Road. $45.
The 100-voice-strong, award-winning St. Mark Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir will perform; ticket price includes brunch. (See the ACANSA schedule for more information.)
'Children of the Little Rock Nine,' a panel discussion
3 p.m.-5 p.m., Ron Robinson Theater, 100 River Market Ave.
Children of the Nine will take the spotlight as they talk about their parents' role in the 1957 crisis impacted their lives. The event is co-sponsored by the Clinton School for Public Service and the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.
5 p.m.-7 p.m. Robinson Center.
Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was baptized and ordained, and other faith leaders will lead a service featuring readings from the Bible, the Mishnah
'Civil Twilight: Reflections on Fear,
6 p.m.-7:15 p.m. Commemorative Garden, 2120 W. Daisy Gatson Bates Drive.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and "Little Rock Nine" opera composer Tania Leon will make remarks at dance/spoken word event with CORE Performance Company (see Sept. 22 entry.)
Complexions Contemporary Ballet
8 p.m., UA Little Rock Center for Performing Arts. $35 ($15 student, military).
Founded in 1994 by two former members of the Alvin Ailey, Complexions is a diverse, experimental company that has performed worldwide. (See the ACANSA Arts Festival schedule for more information.)
10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Central High School's Roosevelt Thompson Auditorium. Registration required; go to the ceremony link at centralhigh60th.org.
President Bill Clinton will be the keynote speaker and the eight living members of the Little Rock Nine have been asked to share their thoughts at this event, held 60 years to the day that the Nine entered Central High School. The auditorium is at
'Mind Blazin' forum
Noon-1:30 p.m. Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Free, reserve at mosaictemplarscenter.com.
Luncheon and forum on educational and social disparities in Little Rock facilitated by poet and public school advocate LeRon McAdoo and his wife, Central High communications instructor Stacy McAdoo.
'Teach Us All'
6 p.m. Riverdale 10 VIP Theater.
The Netflix documentary "Teach Us All," its premiere timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Central's desegregation, examines educational inequality in Little Rock and America then and now using the crisis at Central High as a framework. The film addresses the LRSD's takeover and asks, "60 years later, how far have we come — or not come — and where do we go from here?" The film was directed by Sonia Lowman, produced by the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes and distributed by ARRAY, the film collective that heightens awareness of people of color and women directors.
'Sounds in the Stacks'
6:30 p.m. Fletcher Library, 823 N. Buchanan St. Free.
Piano and sax duo Robert "Frisbee" Coleman and son Franko Nilsson Coleman will perform as a part of the Central Arkansas Library System's Arkansas Sounds project.
'A Conversation on Education in Arkansas with Commissioner Johnny Key and Dean Skip Rutherford.'
Noon. Sturgis Hall, Clinton School for Public Service. Free
Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School, will interview state Department of Education Commissioner Key. Question No. 1: How can the state justify the takeover of a school district with 50 schools because six were out of compliance? No. 2. When with the state return the Little Rock School District to Little Rock? No. 3. Why does he limit conversation with the public to forums like this one?
Jazz in the Park: Rodney Block
6 p.m. to 8 p.m. History Pavilion, Riverfront Park.
Free jazz concert by trumpeter Rodney Block, the final park concert of the season.
Big Brothers/Big Sisters Toast and Roast of Darrin Williams Sr.
5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Metroplex Event Center. $200-$3,000.
Former Central High School student body president and state Rep. Darrin Williams of Little Rock, the CEO of Southern Bancorp, will be honored. The annual fundraiser benefits the Big Brothers/Big Sisters' work with children in need.
From the web
In response to the Sept. 15 Arkansas Blog post "Walmart plans to build new HQ in Bentonville" about the corporation's plans to apply for a grant from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission:
No they don't need state help. Any conservative legislator who is true to their tea party principles will crow on about crony capitalism. I look forward to deafening silence.
God, I hope we can help them out!!! Maybe we can sell off the town of Waldron and give Walmart the proceeds.
Arbiter of All Things AOAT
Why does a corporation that is partly responsible for dismantling the Pulaski County Special School District deserve grants? Perhaps I am not being considerate of the dent building a new headquarters will have in their average $14 billion net profit every year. I feel like such a cynic.
Why does the world's largest retailer need assistance from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission? Shouldn't AEDC work on bringing in new economic opportunities? This sounds like corporate welfare.
You folks might want to visit Northwest Arkansas and see what Walmart has done for Arkansas. Jobs and economic activity run amuck. As the owner of the Arkansas government, do you know who your largest customer is? [If] these guys put their new headquarters out to bid (like Amazon), and the sucking sound in Arkansas would be deafening.
A broke Arkansas guy started a company and grew it into the largest company in the world. He kept the headquarters in Arkansas. And now, they are choosing to stay here for decades to come. Thank you, Walmart. Thank you for the payroll taxes we collect. Thank you for the income taxes we collect. Thank you for the contribution you make to our economy. Thank you for the intelligent people you attract. Thank you for the hundreds of millions you give away to make our communities stronger.
Here's to another half a century of success for all.
dowhat, we spent the night in Bentonville in June, having not been back there since we sold our house in Pea Ridge in '92. The Bentonville Square is nice. The hotels are aplenty, and reasonably priced. But Walmart HQ ? It was sad. It was almost laughable.
Sam and Bud were from Missouri. After being born in Oklahoma. Went to the same high school I went to in Columbia, Mo. Sam ended up in Arkansas after his military discharge (Oklahoma, again.) He, with help from Helen's dad, obtained a Ben Franklin store in Newport. He's been long dead, and it's not his Walmart any more. He was no more "broke" than Hillary Clinton. Nice try, though.
Walmart HQ in Bentonville looks like a warehouse district in some godforsaken river bottoms, only it's up on an eroded plateau and there's no river barge traffic.
I don't care how much Walmart has stimulated the economy, it does not deserve taxpayer help to build on land they already own. It's not as though it's a gonna raise up the local property tax base.
I agree with dowhat on this issue. Having lived in Northwest Arkansas for 50 years, I have witnessed how much beneficial effect Walmart has had on the economy — and the quality of life. It's much better for the state to hand out its incentives to a homegrown business than to foreign corporations, which oftentimes default on their obligations and have no philanthropic concerns for the local area. I'm looking forward to seeing the new headquarters. I understand there was a concerted effort by some officers in the corporation several years ago to move the headquarters to a more cosmopolitan location. The Walton family stood firm. It would always be in Bentonville, they said, as long as they have the controlling interest.
In response to the Arkansas Blog post "Arkansas legislature rejects bipartisan effort to study race relations":
Racial resentment runs deep here in good ole D'arkansas, especially since Trump fanned the dying embers into a roaring bonfire. Keyword "dying" may be the only long-term cure.
There should be lots of studies from around the country. Seems like it would be easier for some legislators to get some of the studies and then pitch ideas that have worked elsewhere. Not a fan of studies that do nothing and then politicians taking credit for "studying."
Screen name taken
Our legislature seems far more interested in exclusion than inclusion. Otherwise, why would they keep on introducing voter I.D. laws that are clearly meant to exclude anyone but white people? Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Springdale), Sen. Linda Collins-Smith (R-Pocahontas) et al. want us all to march lockstep to their white, Baptist dictates. I guess that's what their Jesus tells them to do. Oh, and I am white.
Naw, they are too busy erecting Ten Commandments and statues to be interested in too many things that will divert their attention from their worthy labor of love.
Don't know why, but your Tech Park (that I've been reading about in these blogs for, what, six years?) just popped into my head. How is that coming along for ya? The best and brightest diverse young minds flocking there for those jobs, are they?
In response to the Sept. 14 Arkansas Blog post "State Board of Education gives final green light to three more charters in Little Rock":
Anybody who thinks this isn't about completely charterizing Little Rock and Pine Bluff schools (the last strongholds of Democrats and democracy in Arkansas), let me know. I've got some prime oceanfront property in Northwest Arkansas you can have for a mere pittance. Excepting of course those poor and special needs students in Little Rock and Pine Bluff who can't be easily turned into profit centers.
Charter schools are good for those children who have already been dealt a good hand. We're resegregating the population with charter schools. On top of that, charters are not held to the same education services standard traditional public schools are. For instance, they offer limited special education services and those they do provide are typically contracted out. "At risk" children often need special assistance. When open enrollment charters do allow a certain percentage of children in this classification into their schools, they often cannot provide the services needed to ensure academic success.
I agree that there may be a public/charter partnership possibility. I just don't see the Waltons, Johnny Key or the State Board giving each its fair share.
The Observer got to the doctor's office the other day. We hate going to the doctor. Loathe is a better word. In the form of a sentence, it would be: "The Observer hates going to the doctor with the same white hot intensity that Trump voters would hate being forced to read the seminal grammar primer, 'The Elements of Style,' by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White." Yes, it's that bad.
It's the residue of our church mouse upbringing, we're sure. The Observer's family was often so poor that trips to the doctor were reserved for broken legs, required school physicals, infections lasting more than three days, and any cut deep enough to require stitches (but not stitches REMOVAL ... dear ol' Pa did that himself with a pair of vodka-soaked clippers and a pair of tweezers sterilized with his Bic lighter). In The Observer's household, finding yourself sitting in your tighty whiteys on the crinkly paper, looking at the sterile jars of cotton balls and tongue depressors, meant that the shit had decidedly hit the fan.
So it is that Yours Truly carries a terror of the doctor to this day. We've supposedly got high blood pressure, but we've been prone to wonder many a time if that's actually just a side effect of our heart going "Eye of the Tiger" every time we see a stethoscope.
Because of that fear, The Observer has spent the past 40-odd years partying, medically, like it's 1899, throwing whatever liniment, tincture or poultice we can buy down at the drug store at our innard and outward problems, our aches and pains, tummy troubles and stiff knees, kitchen burns and sinus apocalypses. We've drunk enough Robitussin over the years to float a battleship, snorted enough saltwater to drown Smackover, ate bushels of vitamins, fizzing Alka-Seltzer, Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol tablets and the allergy meds they keep under lock and key behind the counter so the meth-mixers can't get at them without a fight.
Recently, though, The Observer has decided to try and take better care of this lumbering skin suit, lest we wind up like dear old Pa, taken from the world at just 51, seemingly with miles to go before he slept. He hated going to the doctor's office, too, and likely would have fist fought anyone who came at him with a lubed finger, even though that exam might have found what laid him low in the end.
And so, as much as The Observer didn't like filling out forms and waiting in the waiting room and getting weighed and seeing the neat jar of tongue depressors, we got into the doctor's office last week for a whole-nine-yards physical: the peeing in the little cup and getting blood drawn in a little vial, the turning the head and coughing, finally the bending over and spreading 'em while a guy with his finger where the sun don't shine asked about our golf game. It's been a long time coming, and should have been done sooner. Our last physical was the season we played basketball in junior high school, if that tells you anything. But we got it done, and we're glad.
The doctor found a few things, of course. We say "of course," given the aforementioned neglect of 40-plus years, coupled with a familial medical history that should probably have us hermetically sealed in a padded plastic bubble. Nothing too serious, though. Nothing that can't be fixed or mitigated with diet, exercise and the aforementioned meds. We can hack that, as we can hack getting another ass-to-appetite exam next year, and the year after that. We'll just think of England. And our Beloved. And Junior. And seeing Junior's kids. There are no guarantees in life, but if it means we get to hang around this beautiful, confounding, torturous, joyful world for a few more years or decades, what's a finger between friends?
Moments in time, even the important ones, are fleeting, and once they're in the past, it's up to historians to decide what is worthy of inclusion in the history books. In America, that process has been hit-or-miss, especially when it comes to noting the historical contributions and wisdom of minorities and other marginalized groups.
Since 2004, The Memory Project at Central High has been making an attempt to rectify some of the overlooked or willfully neglected
After taking a job at Central in 2004, West was working one day when Spirit Trickey — then a park ranger at the Central High National Historic Site and the daughter of Little Rock Nine member Minnijean Brown-Trickey — came in, asking West if his students would be interested in talking to several families who were visiting Central after a trip to the former Japanese internment camp at Rohwer, where some of their family members had been held during World War II. Coupled with West's interest to get back to the student-led history collection he'd run in Hot Springs, speaking to the Rohwer families was, West said, a "lightbulb moment."
"She said, 'Would you like to talk with these folks in your class?' " West recalled. "At the end of that
"We came up with the idea as a one-time project," West said, "but when the essays started showing up in class and the stories started being told, it was clearly too meaningful to the students and it was just a continuing lesson for me." As a historian who worked at a school where something monumental took place, West said the early days of the project were particularly enlightening for him. Sometimes, when walking through the school, he'd be struck by what he called the fullness of what had happened there. "It wasn't always pretty, but suddenly it was a living history lesson that I'd walk into, around the corner," he said. "It would either be from remembering the experiences of the Little Rock Nine as I learned more about
Over the years, West said, the essays revealed both the "simple truths" and the complexities of the struggle for civil rights, both through the choices people made and the choices they felt they couldn't. While it's easy to sit in 2017 and assume you would have been on the right side of history had you lived in those times, the reality is more complex. West said people often felt "held captive by social conventions" or the fear of being hurt or ostracized.
"More and more, I realized these aren't just stories from the past, or about past actions," he said. "These are stories about choices that people were making. Every individual has those choices, and we continue to be faced with those choices. The story of Central High is not merely a story of black and white relations and the entrenched institutional racism in a white-dominated society. It's another chapter in the ongoing story of the great American experiment in democracy in a nation of many cultures and many
Started without a singular vision, The Memory Project has evolved, West said, growing organically and taking advantage of new opportunities as they presented themselves. Two student-edited books have been produced from The Memory Project, "Beyond Central, Toward Acceptance," which was released in 2010, and "Mapping the Road to Change," which was published in 2013. Conversations with students about "how to get the stories back off the printed page and into face-to-face conversation" led to a reading circle workshop that students have presented at national and state conferences since 2003.
In 2013-14, students with the Memory Project assisted in writing a proposal and securing a grant from the Smithsonian Institution to write and perform spoken-word poetry about historic places and cultural identity.
In their latest project, students with The Memory Project are working with the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub to develop an app and an audio walking tour called "Words That Matter — Voices of Civil Rights: The 1st Day at Central High." Launched Sept. 4 at Central, the walking tour allows visitors to the National Historic Site to follow in the footsteps of Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford on Sept. 4, 1957, the first day the Nine tried to attend classes at the school. On Sept. 25, students will release a second part of the audio walking tour, produced by National Public Radio in partnership with Youth Radio, taking visitors through the events on the day the Nine were escorted into the school by soldiers with the 101st Airborne.
In coming months, West hopes to get a new, updated version of The Memory Project website online, incorporating both the essays from the older website and new essays authored by students at Central. The Butler Center will become the permanent archive for the physical artifacts associated with the project, including the essays and what West said are "hundreds" of audio and video recordings of interviews collected by students over the years.
West is proud of the fact that The Memory Project is wholly student-produced, with teachers trusting students — many around the same age as the Nine when they integrated Central — to collect what he called "authentic experiences" that show them that what they create matters, while giving others the sense of immersion students felt while talking to their relatives. The new app and walking tour is already immersing visitors in the past.
"One of the powerful things in this is watching the students experience the reactions of other people in the community to the essays that they wrote, the spoken-word pieces that they've created, the books that were published, and now this walking tour," West said. "It's very moving. There were 75 or 80 people who did the walking tour on Labor Day, including some real veterans of Civil Rights actions. ... One person said: 'I didn't realize how far Elizabeth had to walk through that mob.' "
Quote of the week
"This is our last chance." — Governor Hutchinson on a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana). Republicans are trying to push it through the Senate before Sept 30. Hutchinson joined with three other Republican governors — in Mississippi, Arizona and Wisconsin — to have input on the legislation. The American Medical Association is among the groups opposing the bill because it says millions would lose health coverage.
New H.Q. for Walmart. With state help?
Walmart will build a new headquarters in Bentonville, CEO Doug McMillon said last week. The project is expected to accommodate 14,000-17,000 employees now spread across 20 buildings in Bentonville. It's expected to be built in stages and take five to seven years to be completed. The retailer also said it plans to apply for a grant from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
One of the world's largest corporations, which has been headquartered in Bentonville for almost 50 years, needs state money to help it build a shiny new campus with, according to a Walmart statement, "improved parking, meal services, a new fitness center, and natural light"?
Won't touch race
On Friday, the Arkansas Legislative Council soundly rejected a bipartisan effort by two senators to create a temporary legislative subcommittee to study race relations in the state.
The proposal, forwarded by Sens. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) and Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), would have created an eight-member panel composed equally of Republicans and Democrats "with the goal of providing recommendations on ways to address historic and current divisions within the State, including proposals for legislative and non-legislative changes" related to racial equality, "reciprocal understanding and acceptance" and equal opportunity. Nothing produced by the proposed subcommittee would have been binding.
That was still too frightening for legislators on the ALC, which is the General Assembly's policymaking body when it's not in session. It needed a two-thirds majority to pass, and fell far short, getting nine votes from House members and needing 22. Members of the Senate did not vote.
More Little Rock charters
The state Board of Education last week allowed three charter school operators to proceed with plans to open new schools in Little Rock, disregarding pleas from Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore to institute a "pause" on charter growth in the city.
The three proposals were given preliminary approval in August by the Charter Authorizing Panel, but the state board has the power to review any of the authorizing panel's decisions. The state board declined to do so for Einstein Charter Schools, ScholarMade Achievement Place and Friendship Aspire Academy in Little Rock, along with two other charters proposed for Pine Bluff. Had the state board opted to review any of the applications, another hearing would have been held next month on the merits of the proposals.
Medical marijuana, by the numbers
Monday, Sept. 18, was the deadline for applications to grow or sell medical marijuana in Arkansas. KARK/Fox 16's Jessi Turnure rounded up some numbers at the close of the application period:
224: dispensary applications
32: dispensary permits to be awarded
98: cultivation applications
5: cultivation permits to be awarded
182: approved patients
600 pages: the shortest application
3,000 pages: the longest application
"Providing unequal and inadequate school resources and excluding black parents from meaningful participation in school policymaking are at least as damaging to black children as enforced separation." — Derrick Bell, "Serving Two Masters"
Sixty years after National Guardsmen were called to protect nine black students from a rabid, racist white mob at Little Rock Central High School, we regret to say that racism remains a prominent trait of the power dynamics of our nation, our city and our schools.
We write this piece on the heels of settling yet another lawsuit against the Little Rock School District in which black students alleged that the LRSD has exercised racially discriminatory policies and practices. In order to understand the LRSD's discriminatory treatment of black children in the present, there has to be an understanding of the courts' failures and missed opportunities of the past.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education effectively rid the nation of de jure racial segregation, but the decision was not without its shortcomings. Most notably, Brown did not create a right for students to be free of de facto segregation or any of the conditions that reproduce segregation in our schools (e.g. poverty, ghettoization and disenfranchisement in local educational policymaking). This conspicuous omission was indicative of liberal legalism's commitment to formal and procedural justice as opposed to substantive justice.
White segregationist policymakers were quick to forcefully rebuke Brown. In 1956, over a hundred members of Congress, including the entire Arkansas delegation, signed the "Southern Manifesto" in which they pledged to "use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of [Brown] ... and to prevent the use of force in its implementation." The story of the LRSD over the past 60 years is a testament to how segregationists have been largely successful in this endeavor.
After Brown, increasingly conservative courts addressed racial discrimination claims involving school districts that had ended their policy of de jure discrimination and were found to be unitary by a court. These courts held that proof that certain policies or practices burdened students of one race more than those of another was not enough to sustain a racial discrimination claim; claimants were also required to prove that the people or institutions responsible for said policies or practices acted with discriminatory intent. In other words, literally all white students may be educated in luxurious, ultramodern buildings while all black students are educated in antebellum shacks so long as there is no proof that the forces behind this segregative situation are acting with discriminatory intent. Thus the tension between equality as a process and
Today, the entirety of the LRSD's administrative and policy-making power is concentrated in the hands of two white men who are, in our opinion, little more than mercenaries of the profiteering Northwest Arkansas Walton elite: Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner (and de facto LRSD school board) Johnny Key and Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore. Two white men wield all of the power over a school district that has a 64 percent black student population. While Key and Poore are careful to use language of racial equality, their practices and policies do not demonstrate a commitment to racial equality, which is why several black LRSD parents and students brought a lawsuit, known as the Doe case, against the district in which they alleged, in part, that it has discriminatorily allocated top-end facilities and high-quality educational resources in an effort to privilege, recruit and retain white students.
White students are dramatically underrepresented in the LRSD's student population due to white flight out of the school district into charter schools, private
Meanwhile, the disproportionately black student populations served by McClellan High School and Cloverdale Middle School are being educated in facilities that an independent design firm concluded, well before Key and Poore rose to the helm of the LRSD, should be replaced. Several of McClellan's classrooms constitute a fire hazard due to the gap at the bottom of several walls where they are supposed to meet the floor. Also, Cloverdale's foundation problems are so severe that the school is coming apart at the seams.
Poore has acknowledged that several families are leaving the LRSD because many of their buildings are not as high-quality, but, when provided the opportunity, the LRSD treated the disproportionately white student population of West Little Rock as a priority over and above the disproportionately black student populations served by McClellan and Cloverdale. This despite the fact that Poore believes the quality of school facilities impacts student achievement (remember both Cloverdale and McClellan were recently on the state's academic distressed list). This despite the fact that the LRSD has no evidence that students in West Little Rock were being educated under conditions akin to the appalling conditions of Cloverdale and McClellan. This despite the fact that the LRSD is losing
When Key, the de facto school board, was asked if there were any efforts to stop the declining enrollment at McClellan and Cloverdale, or even to learn the cause of the declining enrollment, he simply replied, "I don't know."
Also, neither Key nor Poore
Meanwhile, the LRSD continues to abdicate its responsibility to educate poor black students, whom the LRSD treats as the
The plaintiffs settled their case in the face of decades of case law watering down Brown, one of the most conservative judicial circuit courts of appeal in the nation, and a U.S. Supreme Court that recently struck down part of the Voting Rights Act. They could not afford to forego the educational benefits the settlement agreement offered to their community.
The settlement agreement places a moratorium on new school construction until a new high school is built in Southwest Little Rock and Cloverdale is replaced (unless an existing building is damaged or destroyed). It mandates that the LRSD take affirmative steps to increase awareness of the benefits of its high-quality educational resources (e.g. gifted and talented programs and advanced placement classes). The hope is that parents equipped with knowledge of these benefits will advocate for their children to have access to all of the high-quality educational resources the district has to offer. The agreement also requires the LRSD to make several facilities improvements in predominantly impoverished black schools, improvements that should have been completed long before the district spent over $30 million dollars building a new middle school to privilege, recruit and retain the predominantly well-to-do, white students of West Little Rock.
It should go without saying that this agreement is not enough to protect our students from the profiteering, racist bigotry to which they are currently subjected. We need local control and a population that is willing to hold our educational policymakers accountable. We need our best educational resources and facilities to be targeted at the impoverished, the disabled and other disadvantaged students who are in the most need. We need to treat instances of deviant behavior as opportunities to innovate and implement environmental and therapeutic solutions to issues of behavioral health instead of convenient excuses for callous misanthropes to vindictively neglect black and Latino students whom they see as unworthy at best, and inhuman at worst.
The last 60 years has been a testament to the fact that equal rights without equal results
Omavi Shukur and Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) are attorneys with the John W. Walker Law Firm.
Over the past 60 years, events surrounding the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in September 1957 have continued to make a political, economic, social and cultural impact. Scholars, journalists, commentators and others have mulled over the many meanings of the Little Rock school crisis at international, national, regional and local levels. Still today, the city remains a potent symbol in America's continuing civil rights struggle.
At an international level, the Little Rock school crisis was a public relations disaster for the United States as it fought a global cold war with the Soviet Union to win hearts and minds, many of which belonged to people of color. One historian has labeled it "a crisis of such magnitude for worldwide perceptions of race and American democracy that it would become a reference point for the future." International newspapers reported events in Little Rock, and critics of the U.S. pointed to the crisis as evidence of the country's disregard for human rights. Meanwhile, federal officials wrung their hands over the damage done.
At a national level, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's response to the Brown decision has been viewed as one of the major blights on his otherwise popular presidency. Eisenhower was reluctant to voice support for Brown in public, and he was disparaging of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in private. Only when Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus issued a direct challenge to the president's executive authority, calling out the National Guard to prevent a federal court order from being carried out by denying the entry of nine black students into Central High School, did Eisenhower act decisively to federalize the National Guard and send in federal troops.
At a regional level, the key question about the Little Rock crisis has been whether it represented a victory for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or for segregationists. Those pointing to a victory for segregationists contend that Eisenhower only sent troops into the city as a one-off emergency response and that his actions did not immediately pave the way for further strong executive action in defense of civil rights. Neither did it prevent the closing of all the city's high schools by Faubus the following year. The NAACP proved vulnerable to attack, and its branches in Arkansas and across the South were decimated by the late 1950s. Under these circumstances, some have argued that the Little Rock crisis may have strengthened the segregationist cause more than it aided black advancement.
Those pointing to the Little Rock crisis as a triumph for the NAACP note that it forced the issue of the implementation of school desegregation and thereby moved both the president and the Supreme Court, however reluctant, to act. Segregationists viewed the episode as a defeat, yet failed to unite in a common strategy of opposition. The enduring lessons of Little Rock from this perspective are the futility of directly defying court orders, the folly of closing public schools and the social and economic costs of racial turmoil. Few other governors tried to emulate Faubus' actions and few other business communities stepped forward to risk the hefty economic costs of
Little Rock instantaneously became a reference point in popular culture. It inspired poet Gwendolyn Brooks to write "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock" about black newspaper reporter L. Alex Wilson, who a white mob turned on and attacked during the first day of integrated classes at Central High. Wilson died prematurely in 1962 of what seems likely to have been Parkinson's Disease, very possibly brought on by his assault at Central. Jazz musician Charles Mingus composed music for and penned lyrics to a song called "Fables of Faubus," lambasting the Arkansas governor and labeling him, among other things, a "Nazi Fascist
Closer to home, at a local level, the city of Little Rock has continued to grapple with the meaning of the school crisis. In the decades immediately after, civic leaders looked to ignore events altogether, viewing them as an embarrassment and a detriment to the city's image and economy. In the 1970s and 1980s, tentative commemorations of the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the school crisis emerged that largely focused on pointing out how far desegregation had progressed in the city rather than forthrightly addressing the events of the past. As elsewhere in the United States, the 1970s and 1980s were when Little Rock's schools were at their most desegregated.
The 40th anniversary of the school crisis in 1997 coincided with Bill Clinton's presidency. Clinton embraced the legacy of the Little Rock Nine and the civil rights movement, and he symbolically joined with the nine black students on the steps of Central High School and walked with them through the school doors. It was a landmark moment, the city and state finally willing to own the school crisis as part of its history. Clinton later awarded the Little Rock Nine Congressional Gold Medals, the highest civilian award, and a Central High Museum and Visitor Center
Yet, the recent self-congratulatory anniversaries in the city have taken place against a backdrop of rapidly increasing school resegregation. Although Little Rock has promoted itself as having a successful Southern school district because it has managed to keep around a fifth or so of its public school population white, in a city that is 49 percent white and 42 percent black, as the 60th anniversary approaches, there is a very real threat that the school district is about to go the way of many others in the United States
Little Rock remains, and will always remain, a bellwether for measuring the United States' progress in education. On the 60th anniversary of the school crisis, it seems that Little Rock's most enduring historical legacy is set to become that of a symbol of the nation's failed attempts to deliver equal education for all of its school children. As has always been the case, the power to determine how the rest of the world, and how the rest of the nation,
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Joel E. Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is an internationally recognized expert on the Little Rock school crisis and the civil rights movement, and over the past
If you ask her, Tania León will tell you that she is a musician, no prefix required. In a 2015 interview with Latino USA's Maria Hinojosa, the composer clarified her reluctance to frame her identity in terms of race as it is so often: "I am not a black composer. I am not a woman composer. I am not a Caribbean composer. All those definitions — I never hear them expressed when you talk about Beethoven, for example. Or when you talk about Debussy." That said, the prefixes that help tell the story of León's work in America are many: She is 74 years old, Cuban-born. She is a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and was its first musical director, and she composed the opera "Scourge of Hyacinths," an aria from which — "Oh Yemanja!" — was recorded by world-class soprano Dawn Upshaw for Upshaw's album "The World So Wide."
León served as new music advisor to the New York Philharmonic in the '90s and founded an organization called "Composers Now," a New York-based consortium of creatives and patrons seeking to increase
I saw an early picture of you sitting on a couch between Wole Soyinka and with Henry Louis Gates Jr., who's been a historical research guide for "Little Rock Nine." You've known him for some time, and now you're collaborating on this opera.
We met at The Bellagio Center in Italy. He was a fellow at the time and I was a fellow. It so happened that during that time, Hans Werner Henze — a European composer who became one of my mentors — talked to me about writing an opera, something that had never crossed my mind. It's not that I wasn't interested, but to write an opera, you need a backup. Who's going to produce the opera? It's a big undertaking. But he convinced me. And when I met Henry Louis Gates Jr. — you know, the artists all get together specifically and have dinner — we started talking to each other and I told him how preoccupied I was. I needed to find a story, something that would compel me to write me an opera. At the time, I was looking [at] Umberto Eco, but then Umberto Eco died, and then it was a whole thing with his estate and how to approach this. I told this to Henze and to Gates, who talked to me and said, "Give me some samples of your music — I have an idea." So I gave him my CD. I didn't know that Gates had it in mind to send to Wole Soyinka. Wole Soyinka, as you know, is the first Nobel Prize winner from Africa. Nigerian-born. Well, Wole Soyinka liked my
This is the same deity that my grandmother and my mother — if we were sick, then they would pray to this deity. If I had an exam, if I got to play in front of the public, everything was geared toward — all the sanctity and the blessing of this deity. Then this man has sent me something where
So, you're a prolific composer, but it's been quite a while since the
Well, for me, I mean, whether it's opera or any piece, I have to live in that environment. Soyinka was easy because I knew the deity, and I have the experience since childhood about the mother or a member of the family praying to this deity every time that they had a moment of insecurity or an emotional plea. But in the case of the Little Rock Nine, it's the same thing. For me, it's something that I have to live through and get immersed in that environment.
With "Little Rock Nine," what are you doing musically to help people feel what those barriers felt like? It seems like a bit of an impossible thing, to help the audience feel that.
... We experience barriers because we created barriers. You and I didn't do it. There was a group of people that based on business, based on their self-aggrandizing, they created the slave trade. They brought all those people here against their will and they made them work for them for free. That is something that we are still carrying on today. After the emancipation of those people, we created another form of slavery. How? By not allowing them to get an education. By not giving them all their rights. By making them sit in the back of the bus. By not allowing them to use the same water fountain. I mean, what is this all about? You continue reminding them that they are slaves. In a way, this is the 21st century and we're still having this stigma. The stigma continues. ...
My family is comprised of very dark people and very opposite-of-dark people. And on top of that, of Asian people. So I have three different phenomena that are making me possible, to make this experiment called Tania León. My grandmother said, "You are the one that's gonna be famous." It was frightening, now that I think about how these people talked to me, the assurance that my future was going to be spectacular. And I think what I've been able to accomplish is because of their ghosts.
There, believing in you?
Exactly. And I hear this. Anytime I walk on stage, I hear my grandmother. My grandmother said to me many times, "Your name is gonna be on the marquees at theaters." They helped me dream. And they gave me the tools.
It might not be clear to many people what your connection is to this opera, and so I want to ask a little bit about your own experience with barriers. You were 23 when you came to the United States as a pianist. It was 1967, a year before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Absolutely. And what you have to understand is that when I got here, I was coming from Cuba, where there was a lot of thought about segregation and discrimination in the United States, to the point that some classmates and people said, "Oh, you are going to the United States?" Like, "Get ready, because you are going to confront this thing." The day that I actually boarded the plane, there was a
It's a little poetic that you're coming back to this historical moment through the opera, the same ideas that you thought about when you first came to the U.S. are resurfacing for you 50 years later.
These 50 years have been very hard — the rules and regulations in the last 50 years have been really hard to deal with. For example, I talked to you about my grandmother. She died four years after I arrived here and I could not go back. I was not permitted to go to my grandmother's funeral because of the politics. This is what I'm trying to tell you; we punish each other. For one reason or the other.
Did you ever imagine when you started working on the opera that you would be premiering the excerpts in such a politically divided time?
I had no idea that any of this was gonna happen to me. First of all, when Rollin Potter called me and told me about this, I didn't know what the "Little Rock Nine" was, I'll tell you the truth. I knew about Selma, and I knew about Martin Luther King. ... Little Rock was not on my radar. But I got very interested, specifically because of the racial connotations. That is something that I have perceived and felt very uncomfortable with.
Is there anything that you imagine will be a sign for you that the opera is what you wanted it to be?
Who knows? Every day, we all change, and every day, things happen that make you change. I have no idea. You have probably heard that the person who is working on the libretto at the moment is Thulani Davis. When I spoke with Thulani, she told me also that she saw this whole thing on television when she was 8. So these people are [her] contemporaries. So, I didn't have to go through that, but I have the empathy.
See uca.edu/tickets for tickets to "An Evening with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Tania León: Turning History into Art," and see our Central High School 60th Anniversary To-Do List for more information on "Little Rock Nine," the opera.