Judge gives initial OK to end Arkansas school suit

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – After decades of court battles and $1 billion of government aid, one the nation’s most historic school desegregation efforts might finally be nearing an end.

A federal judge gave preliminary approval Friday to a settlement in a Little Rock desegregation lawsuit that would phase out special court-ordered payments after the 2017-18 school year.

The end would come 60 years after the eyes of the nation first were riveted on Little Rock, when President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 ordered federal troops to ensure safe passage for nine black students walking through angry crowds into the doors of the predominantly white Little Rock Central High School.

U.S. District Judge Price Marshall said Friday that the settlement appeared to be legal – an important hurdle. He set a hearing for Jan. 13-14 to determine whether it’s fair to the state, the school districts, the children and educators involved in the case.

“This is not the end,” Marshall said. “But I hope this is the beginning of the end.”

For at least some of those who were there for the beginning, Friday’s court action rekindled decades of powerful emotions of distrust and frustration.

“Wow! That’s interesting – I wasn’t aware they were at that stage,” said Terrance Roberts, one of the original Little Rock Nine escorted into Central High in 1957. But Roberts wasn’t rejoicing Friday. Rather, it’s “business as usual,” he said.

Roberts, who was a high school junior when he helped integrate Central High, later returned as a desegregation consultant for the Little Rock School District in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He said he was relieved of his duties before all of his proposals were implemented.

“Even though on the surface they gave the impression that they were willing to follow the dictates of the federal government to desegregate, there was not only a great reluctance, there was an unwillingness to really move in that direction,” Roberts said in a telephone interview from St. Louis, where he was attending the screening of a documentary about the federal judge who ordered the desegregation of Central High.

The lawsuit moving toward a settlement is not the same one that spurred the school’s integration. But it still has deep roots. It dates to 1982 and has resulted in more than $1 billion of state spending on desegregation efforts in the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts.