Remember Little Rock by Erin Krutko Devlin examines the history and public memory of the famous Little Rock school desegregation crisis. The monograph focuses on the various narratives of the crisis that have been developed and how they have been deployed, as well as the processes whereby Little Rock’s past has been remembered and commemorated. In the end, Devlin concludes that a triumphal narrative emphasizing civil rights progress and success has eclipsed the realities of the school desegregation process as well as the continuation of racial disparities and inequities in the present day. As a result, Remember Little Rock offers lessons extending beyond its geographic focus—about how the past is remembered, and about the development and implementation of civil rights and education policy. Remember Little Rock’s principal goal is to examine how the city of Little Rock has been remembered and commemorated in terms of its school desegregation history. As a result, the story unfolds within the context of scholarship on history and public memory, including the politics of commemoration, popular culture and media, and museum studies. The book also incorporates the vast secondary literature and academic scholarship on the Little Rock crisis, particularly in the field of history. Remember Little Rock also pulls from an impressive collection of primary sources, based on research in archives throughout the nation, a careful reading of primary accounts of the crisis, and oral history interviews. The result is an ambitious attempt to place the history of the Little Rock crisis within the fields of public memory, remembrance, and policy. To do that, the author invariably blurs some of the finer details. At times, Remember Little Rock reads like an overview that lumps moderates, massive resisters, and activists into surprisingly broad categories. The same holds true for school officials and elected officials, who appear as cohesive groups in lieu of discussion about how their makeup changed over time. In addition, relevant outside events—the story of Hoxie, Arkansas, for instance, where there was a conflict over school integration in 1955, or the tremendous violence unleashed on the proponents of racial change in neighboring Mississippi—are minimized in this account. Only a much larger volume, however, could address these minor shortcomings. Remember Little Rock instead focuses on how the history of the Little Rock school desegregation crisis has been remembered, commemorated, and utilized, and it is here that its greatest contributions are to be found. Devlin carefully traces the development of various triumphal narratives of school desegregation in Little Rock over the past six decades via media portrayals, commemorative events, and the development of memorial spaces. During this time, white residents often minimized the negative aspects of the history, while African American activists continued to challenge white narratives about the past. Their contestation of the narrative partly reflected the divisions that existed in 1957, but also the importance of shaping the future memory of the historic events. One of Remember Little Rock’s most important contributions is its exploration of how the construction of public memory intersects with the development of public policy. Devlin argues that local policymakers throughout the later twentieth century encouraged and utilized an idealized and inaccurate image of Little Rock’s past to achieve their goals. For instance, local school officials portrayed Little Rock as a model school district when seeking release from federal court oversight of school desegregation planning. However, as the author points out, “Little Rock’s celebration of progress came at the expense of cultivating an active historical understanding of the process of school desegregation in the district” (64). Fortunately for school officials, their arguments found favor among an increasingly conservative federal court system. The celebratory narrative of school desegregation and racial progress in Little Rock also belied the existence of persistent racial inequities in various aspects of life, including education. While a growing percentage of white Americans believed “that black-white integration and equality was an accomplished reality” (113), or that persistent disparities were not the result of discrimination, Devlin argues that Americans should recognize and actively counteract the negative ramifications of the past. Remember Little Rock assists that process by exposing “the chasm between the rhetoric of the ‘post-civil rights’ era and the reality of persistent racial inequality in American education” (180). Devlin hopes that her analysis will provide motivation to those who support racial equality in public education in the present day. In light of persistent inequities in education, and resegregation in many urban areas, Remember Little Rock provides an important framework for understanding the past to those committed to integration and racial equality. It does so by exposing “the historical roots of many of the seemingly intractable problems that face the nation’s schools today and continue to influence conditions in Little Rock and elsewhere” (188). Remember Little Rock is a well-written analysis of an important battle in the struggle for racial equality in the United States, with lessons that extend far beyond Little Rock. Scholars of education, history and memory, politics, and law in the United States will find it worthwhile and enjoyable. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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