In early September 1957, a hostile crowd watched as Arkansas National Guard troops blocked the entrance of nine black students into the all-white Little Rock Central High School.
Three weeks later, on Sept. 25, 1957, after negotiations between Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower failed to resolve the stalemate, Eisenhower called in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort and protect the nine black students as they entered the school.
In those early days of television news, dramatic images of the conflict in front of the impressive facade of Central High, the largest high school in the country when it was built in 1927, remain in people’s memories. The school was becoming the symbol for a greater lesson in education about equal rights and respect for all people regardless of race.
There were really three viewpoints in those days. The majority made an ugly scene for segregation. A minority tried to make a reasoned case that the right thing to do was to obey the law, which authorized the integration of the public schools. Finally, a very few actually believed that integration itself was right.
The pain of racism and the scars of racial segregation temper the pride that Little Rock citizens feel in celebrating these anniversaries. Looking back, almost everyone admits the evils of segregation and how hard it was to prevail against it. It’s impressive to think about how much courage it took for community leaders and common citizens to work together for the integration of Central High School.
An interesting sidebar to this historic moment is the role that Second Baptist Church played in the crisis. Pastor Dale Cowling was a key community leader in the early civil rights movement, preaching sermons about the God-given dignity of all people and influencing community leaders.
When the governor closed Little Rock’s high schools for the 1958-59 school year, Cowling opened an accredited high school in Second Baptist Church for the public. It stood in contrast to T.J. Rainey High School, which was opened only for segregationists. The school, called Baptist High, had around 300 students in 10th through 12th grades.
During the 1957-58 school year, Second Baptist member Lynn Heflin served as vice president of the Little Rock Central PTA, becoming president for the 1958-59 year when the governor closed the school.
One of the most significant players in the crisis was U. S. Congressman Brooks Hays, a longtime member of Second Baptist, where he taught a popular men’s Bible class of 350 people for over 20 years. He also served two terms as lay president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Congressman Hays, who the Washington Post called “one of the gentlest spirits in this hard-boiled town—a steadfast and courageous man,” was an outspoken advocate for the integration of Central High. He played a mediator’s role between the Arkansas governor and President Eisenhower.
Cowling—from the pulpit—and Hays—from the halls of government—worked in tandem to help integrate Little Rock Central High School. Second Baptist lost members and financial support as a result. The 16-year congressman lost his seat to a write-in segregationist candidate. Yet today, we know beyond any doubt who was right and who was wrong.
Little Rock is still recovering from racism’s destructive consequences. Just this month, the Little Rock School District was released from court-ordered sanctions for the first time since 1957.
Today, our church is still known in the community for its positive stand on “people relations.” For over 30 years, our church has partnered in worship with two African-American Baptist congregations and another Anglo Baptist congregation.
Our church serves as the home church for Ernie Dodson and her husband, Jon. Ernie grew up in Second Baptist as a child in the 1960s and is the founder and CEO of EMOBA—the Museum of Black Arkansans. EMOBA develops exhibits and highlights the experiences of African-Americans in Arkansas’ history.
This fall my oldest son, Adam, stepped onto the Central High campus as a freshman. I am proud to drive him to school. To see the racial diversity on campus. To see the academic strength of the school. To see the equal opportunities available to all our children. To see the fruits of Second Baptist Church’s leadership in a community crisis 45 years ago today.
Now we’ll see if our churches, pastors and public leaders have the same measure of courage, as a few did 45 years ago, to keep pushing us in the direction of loving our neighbors as ourselves—because we still haven’t reached that goal.
Ray Higgins has served as pastor of Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., since 1994.