Secretary of Education visits Little Rock's Central High
LITTLE ROCK (AP) — U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige paid homage Friday to the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by visiting the site of one of the desegregation order's toughest trials.
Paige, who grew up attending a segregated school in Mississippi, visited Central High School in Little Rock. He characterized the school's forced integration in 1957 as a landmark along a "continuing, arduous struggle for racial equality" that began with the Brown ruling three years earlier.
"This is a very special moment for me," he told a small group of students. "I kind of lived, in a vicarious way, the experiences of the residents of this city in 1957. I watched from a distance how we as Americans learned to live together."
Central High School took the national spotlight when nine black students, now known as the Little Rock Nine, walked through the front doors accompanied by Army paratroopers who escorted them through mobs of angry whites to enforce a federal desegregation order.
Speaking in the school auditorium with enlarged photos of those events in the background, Paige recalled his early education in a two-story, wood-frame school across town from the much nicer white school. He said schools, through the painful process of desegregation, have carried much of the burden in the process of establishing racial equality throughout society.
Paige, point man for President Bush's No Child Left Behind education initiative, described it as an unprecedented effort to educate all members of a society.
"Imagine if every child in this nation got a good education," he said. "Coming from a segregated school in Mississippi, that's really amazing."
But Paige also acknowledged that there is a long way to go to realize that goal, pointing out the nationwide learning gap between whites and minority groups. He said there are "islands of excellence" in public education that need to be expanded.
Paige said he recalls exactly where he was when three momentous events occurred: the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy, and the day in 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown decision. As the Little Rock Nine entered Central High, Paige said, he was just mustering out of the Navy and preparing for his first teaching job.
He said he's gratified to now be leading an effort to provide an adequate education to all U.S. students, regardless of race.
"Only in America could a person like me, from a small, rural, highly-segregated town like Monticello, Miss., be sitting around a table with the rest of the president's cabinet discussing issues important to the nation," he said.
Jay Hughes, Associated Press
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