You shouldn’t pass through Little Rock without visiting the location of a turning point in the American Civil Rights Movement. Little Rock Central High School was the site of a tense standoff during forced segregation in 1957.
It’s incredible to think that on these steps, more than 50 years ago, nine black students faced an angry mob of white folks, just for the right to attend school here. The students were escorted in by Army soldiers, under orders from President Dwight Eisenhower — who also federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard, so that Arkansas’ governor couldn’t use them against the army.
As I wandered in the front door of the school, I suddenly realized that Little Rock Central High is still a school. With a bit of embarrassment, I said hello to the staff, took a picture, then ducked out. I imagine they’re used to it.
Since 2007, the 50th anniversary of the standoff, there’s a new visitor center on the corner of Daisy Gatson Bates Drive (formerly 14th Street) and Park Street. Before the new visitor center was built, this old Magnolia Mobil gas station served as the welcome center, operated by the National Park Service.
The old Mobilgas station looks just as it did a half-century ago. It’s a strange contradiction: seeing an old gas station like this conjures up an image of the “good old days” — then you look across the street and realize all the hate, tension, and violence that was taking place during those days. I don’t know if that was the park service’s intention, but it’s one of the most powerful realizations I experienced here.