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Little Rock Central High bill clears U.S. House; historic site’s expansion heads to Senate after 390-0 vote

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives voted Tuesday evening to expand the boundaries of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, pausing for 20 minutes to highlight the significance of the 1957 desegregation struggle.

Under the legislation, seven South Park Street houses sitting on roughly 1.5 acres would be placed within the boundaries. It would also empower the secretary of the Interior Department to reach "cooperative agreements" with the homeowners to help preserve the site.

The secretary could use federal money, if appropriated, "to mark, interpret, improve, restore, and provide technical assistance with respect to the preservation and interpretation of the properties."

The landowners and community officials back the legislation, advocates said.

The proposal, which passed 390-0, now heads to the U.S. Senate. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Dardanelle, is sponsoring it there.

The entire House delegation from Arkansas supported the bill.

Tuesday's House vote comes 60 years after the Little Rock crisis, which focused worldwide attention on the state and its capital city.

U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Republican from Little Rock, sponsored the legislation. He was joined by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil-rights activist who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and survived a brutal 1965 attack in Selma, Ala.

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Speaking on the House floor, Hill said the legislation would help to preserve the neighborhood "so that future generations will be able to picture this tranquil street and [the] architecturally significant facade of the Central High and reflect back to those 21 days of trauma in September 1957."

In a 9-0 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 had struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine, ordering states to end school segregation with "all deliberate speed."

But it took more than three years to implement the change in the state's largest city and elsewhere.

Efforts to integrate Little Rock's schools sparked a standoff between the state's segregationist governor, Orval Faubus, and President Dwight Eisenhower. After days of defiance from the southern Democratic governor, the northern Republican president dispatched federal troops to end the standoff.

The Little Rock Nine, the first to cross the color line, faced a gauntlet of sign-waving protesters, gun-toting soldiers and camera-wielding journalists.

They also provided hope and inspiration, Lewis said.

Desegregation only became a reality because of "brave men and women and some very brave children, like the Little Rock Nine," he said.

"Parents swallowed their fear. ... Strong, innocent little children put their bodies on the line to force the change that justice demanded," he said. Their actions "changed the heart and soul of our nation, and we must admit today that our country is a better country and we are a better people because of these children."

Hill was just a few months old when the Little Rock Nine made history; Lewis, 17 years old at the time, followed the developments closely.

"These young people inspired all of us to stand up, to speak up and to speak out," Lewis said. "Central High School is part of our history that must be preserved for generations yet unborn."

Decades after the desegregation at Central High School, the site still stirs powerful memories, he said.

"I remember very well, a few years ago, I visited their school and walked through the halls. ... I felt like I was walking in a special place, almost a holy place. It brought tears to my eyes," Lewis said. "During those dark and difficult times, that nationally historic site became a beacon of hope, an inspiration that we can never give up, that we can never give in, as we strive toward equal rights and justice for all."

Hill said he was pleased to work with Lewis on the legislation. He predicted that, with Cotton's help, it will also clear the Senate.

"I look forward to President [Donald] Trump signing this bill and again recognizing that we have to embrace our past and learn from our history," he said.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs, also urged lawmakers to support the bill, telling them that the Little Rock Nine "showed the United States and the world that we were and are better than segregation, better than racism and injustice."

In an interview, Hill said it's important to preserve the block in front of the school.

"Central High is an integral touchstone on the civil-rights trail," he said. "All of the iconic pictures and much of the drama between Sept. 4 and Sept. 25 took place there on South Park Street right in front of the school and right in front of those houses, so I thought it was a good strategic effort on the part of the National Park Service to include these houses in [the] boundary."

The congressman, whose district includes the school, said it was "very emotional" to work with Lewis on the legislation, calling him "one of those pioneers in the civil-rights movement."

Metro on 09/13/2017

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