This column originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Sixty years ago this month, nine Black students faced down a racist mob that tried to prevent them from attending the all-white Central High School in Little Rock. The photographs from that day immortalize an ugly chapter in our state’s history when Arkansas used its National Guard to thwart the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing racial segregation in public schools.
The images from that time should not be seen as relics of a distant past we’ve left behind. They are reminders of the insidious legacy of white supremacy that infects our society to this day, and of the clear-eyed vigilance with which racism and bigotry must continue to be fought.
The American Civil Liberties Union participated as a friend-of-the-court in Brown, lending our support to the NAACP’s persistent and courageous effort to end racial segregation in America’s public schools. ACLU attorneys then led the litigation in the reopened Brown v. Board Education case and continued to bring cases challenging racial segregation and isolation.
Today our work to combat racial injustice continues in courts, capitols and communities across the country. We’re fighting to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, end modern-day debtors’ prisons, and address the mass incarceration crisis that has devastated communities of color. ACLU members and supporters, now more than 1.6 million strong, are leading grassroots efforts to reform our criminal justice system and stem the epidemic of police violence.
This work is taking on a renewed urgency in the face of mounting threats to freedom and equality. More than a half century after the Little Rock Nine stepped into Central High School, racial segregation is worsening in America’s public schools. The number of highly segregated schools with zero to 10 percent white enrollment has more than tripled, according to the UCLA Civil Rights Project.
Here in Little Rock, the process of re-segregating our classrooms has accelerated since the state takeover of the Little Rock School District in 2015, and new state initiated and authorized charter schools are being created at a breakneck pace and with a fervor that is obscene.
Attacks on voting rights are also ramping up, as state and local officials emboldened by the Trump administration and the U.S. Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act make it harder and harder to vote.
And on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, just steps from the monument to the Little Rock Nine, stands a towering shrine to the Confederacy. Gov. Jeff Davis, at the time of its construction 40 years after the end of the Civil War, called the statue an altar “to the cause we each know was right, the cause of the Confederacy.”
This monument and the hundreds of others like it were built for the express purpose of glorifying the Confederacy and perpetuating an ideology that denies African Americans’ basic humanity. Their continued presence in public spaces papers over the Confederacy’s true history as a system of racial violence and oppression, and attempts to rebrand it as a just, honorable and patriotic cause. Today white supremacy stands on literal pedestals in our public squares, courthouses and capitols across the South.
We cannot build a stronger and more just future by lying about our past. That is why the ACLU and its members have teamed up with Color of Change on a campaign to remove confederate symbols from any place of honor and to educate the public about our nation’s dark history of white supremacy.
As we recognize the history of Central High School and its role in the struggle against racial oppression, we must combat efforts to rewrite that history before our very eyes. A statue celebrating white supremacy has no place looming over the state capitol grounds alongside the monument to the Little Rock Nine. We can learn from our nation’s history without glorifying its greatest sin.
It’s time to remove these Confederate symbols from their pedestals and recommit ourselves to the long hard work of rooting out racial injustice and fulfilling America’s true promise as a nation where all people are free and equal under the law.