Choices in Little Rock is a teaching unit that focuses on efforts to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 — efforts that resulted in a crisis that historian Taylor Branch once described as “the most severe test of the Constitution since the Civil War.” The unit explores civic choices — the decisions people make as citizens in a democracy.
Those decisions, both then and now, reveal that democracy is not a product but a work in progress, a work that is shaped in every generation by the choices that we make about ourselves and others. Although those choices may not seem important at the time, little by little, they define an individual, delineate a community, and ultimately distinguish a nation. Those choices build on the work of earlier generations and leave legacies for those to come.
Too often, discussions of civic responsibilities focus almost exclusively on voting. Although important, it is just one aspect of citizenship. Citizens influence their leaders and shape events in a wide variety of ways. The ballot box is only a part of the story. In Choices in Little Rock, students consider how ordinary people shape abstract ideas like the balance of power and federalism. The story is told through court decisions, political speeches, telegrams, letters, memoirs, interviews, and news reports. It is a story that teaches many lessons about race and racism as well as civic engagement. At the 40th anniversary of the crisis, President Bill Clinton listed some of those lessons in a speech he gave at Central High School:
Well, 40 years later we know that we all benefit, all of us, when we learn together, work together and come together. That is, after all, what it means to be an American. Forty years later, we know, notwithstanding some cynics, that all our children can learn, and this school proves it.
Forty years later, we know when the Constitutional rights of our citizens are
threatened; the national government must guarantee them. Talk is fine, but when they are threatened, you need strong laws, faithfully enforced, and upheld by
Forty years later we know there are still more doors to be opened, doors to be
opened wider, doors we have to keep from being shut again now.
Forty years later we know freedom and equality cannot be realized without
responsibility for self, family and the duties of citizenship, or without a commitment to building a community of shared destiny, and a genuine sense of belonging.
Forty years later, we know the question of race is more complex and more
important than ever, embracing no longer just blacks and whites, or blacks and
whites and Hispanics and Native Americans, but now people from all parts of the earth coming here to redeem the promise of America.
Forty years later, frankly, we know we are bound to come back where we started. After all the weary years and silent tears, after all the stony roads and bitter rides, the question of race is, in the end, still an affair of the heart.
But… … if these are lessons, what do we have to do? First, we must all reconcile. Then, we must all face the facts of today, and finally, we must act.