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Books | Sports

October 4, 2010

Little Rock's Friday Night Lights

Jay Jennings revisits a story as old as he is—the messy integration of Little Rock schools—by spending a season with Central's high-school football team.

Matthew Goldenberg

Thomas Wolfe may have suggested that you can never go home again, but Jay Jennings, a Little Rock, Arkansas, native and former Sports Illustrated writer, did exactly that to pen his new book.

Jay Jennings. Photo by Greg Martin.
"Little Rock's citizens, including many families that stretched back generations, refused to abandon their public schools."

Jay Jennings. Photo by Greg Martin.

Named for a small outcropping on the bank of the Arkansas River, Little Rock gained infamy during the Civil Rights Era when the state's governor and other segregationists blocked nine African-American students from entering the city's beloved Central High School. The Little Rock Crisis, as the disquieting episode came to be known, ultimately prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to order federal troops to enforce integration and protect the nine students.

Five decades later, Central High may no longer be the center of the country's attention, but it is still home to the Tigers, the school's football team that won seven state titles in nearly three decades under the leadership of Coach Bernie Cox. Jennings chronicles a season in the life of the team—and a century in the life of a city—in his new book, Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and space, Jennings discussed the book, some Razorback State history, and those quintessential topics of the American South: race and football.

Gelf Magazine: Let's start with the basics. What led you to write this book?

Jay Jennings: I was born in the fall of 1957, so the Crisis at Central High and I are the same age. I had been wanting to write something substantial about Little Rock for a long time, and as I approached my 50th birthday—and the crisis, its 50th anniversary—I began to think about the place that formed me and wondered where things stood now, since I'd lived in New York for 20-odd years. The integration conflict had been well-covered by historians and journalists and participants, so I knew I couldn't bring much new to that. My background in sports, both as a high-school football player (at Central's chief rival, Catholic High) and a reporter for Sports Illustrated, led me to look at present-day Little Rock through that lens. Bernie Cox's success as coach at Central intrigued me, especially since his first season had been my senior season—and he was still there in 2007. That kind of continuity drew me to him. Once I convinced him to let me follow the team for the year, it was total immersion.

Gelf Magazine: For much of the book, football plays second string to a broader social and political history of the city. Was that your original intent—to write a more comprehensive history of a place—or how did that come to pass?

Jay Jennings: I was never interested in writing only about sports. I always had in mind the basic structure of a football season as the narrative spine with branching stories into other areas of Little Rock's history and development. (This is hardly my innovation: Friday Night Lights is built this way.)
With Little Rock, the flip side of the concentration of so many people on 1957 was that some of the context had been overlooked. Historians had explored incidents here and there, but no one had done a comprehensive overview of Little Rock. Because I had grown up here—and been bussed myself in the early 1970s—I knew that Little Rock's history was much richer than simply that which was bracketed by the years of the Central High crisis. In my research, when I realized that the lynching of John Carter happened in 1927, and that his body was dragged behind a car through the city streets only blocks from where the magnificent school was being constructed for the city's white students, I knew that I had a solid historical starting point for the story.

Gelf Magazine: One of the reasons Gelf editors asked me to write this article is that I've spent some time thinking about the intersection of race and football in the South. In fact, I wrote my college thesis (over a decade ago now) on the desegregation of high-school football in post-Brown Alabama. One of my arguments was that sports could have been a powerful force for social cohesion and interracial harmony, but that white flight to the suburbs prevented much true integration in schools or on the football field. But is that argument too simple? Little Rock, it seems, was somewhat different—Central and its football team did have significant populations of both black and white students over the last several decades. But it seems like that diversity did not significantly unify the city or heal racial divisions. What are your thoughts about the power of sports to overcome racial disunity?

Jay Jennings: I can best answer this with a personal story. I was a cosseted country-club kid who grew up in a homogeneous neighborhood and was almost completely unaware that there were even black peers of mine in the city. When I was in 7th grade, I went out for football and shared a locker with an African-American kid named Ezekiel Vaughn, who was bussed into my neighborhood junior high school (and who ended up being a great player for Central). He was a tremendous person. There were a lot of racially charged fights that year in the school, but I don't remember any of them. I recall playing football with a nice, always smiling guy named Ezekiel.
The next year I was bussed across town to a black neighborhood. Before classes started, I went out for football and met a black kid on the team named Tony Brown. When classes began, Tony pulled me aside in the hall one day and said, "Little Jay"—I was not much over five feet tall and he was a big lineman—"there's some rogues around here, so if you get into any trouble, you just call on Tony Brown." There's no saccharine ending to either of these relationships—I didn't become close friends with either Ezekiel or Tony (and I've often thought about why I didn't), nor did I need to use the great gift of protection that Tony gave me—but it's pretty clear that football gave me a very positive introduction to African-American kids, and having football in common was a bond that transcended our differences.
In a more sociological vein, my book mentions a study by Duke professor Charles Clotfelter in which he determined that the casual "interracial contact" promoted by extracurricular activities like football are an important condition for overcoming stereotypes. And I have a strong belief that the "white flight" you studied, for example, and that's present to some degree in Little Rock (along with other forms of separation of the races), denies us the opportunity to combat our preconceived notions. Even if it's a "condition," however, mere "contact" doesn't guarantee that barriers are crossed. And while Central has set up those conditions by throwing the populations together (and I believe that's a positive thing), there remain gulfs that are difficult to bridge—and the reasons why they aren't bridged are often murky and unfathomable.

Gelf Magazine: One of the most tragic stories you tell is that of Roosevelt Thompson, an outstanding graduate of Central who played football for the Tigers, went on to an illustrious academic career at Yale, but was killed in a car accident in his early 20s. You note that he was born around the same time as Barack Obama and seem to suggest that had he lived, Little Rock and its race relations might be different. Does a single individual really have such power?

Jay Jennings: I suppose I'm giving in a bit to the "great man" theory of history, but Rosey Thompson was such a towering yet accessible personality, such an intellectual yet humble person, that it's not absurd to imagine how a natural leader such as he was might have moved the city and state forward. I mean, Hillary Clinton called Thompson one of the most remarkable people she'd ever met. Senator David Pryor has said Thompson would almost assuredly have become Arkansas's first black governor. Certainly, he could have become mired in political muck, and these are things you can never predict, but Arkansas still has never had a black governor, senator, nor representative, and a leader to fill that role, both symbolically and practically, might have been good for racial harmony here.

Gelf Magazine: You touch on so many aspects of Little Rock's history: lynchings, massive resistance, highway construction through low-income neighborhoods, white flight, urban school reform, and even the birth of that much-maligned community organizing group, ACORN. To what extent is Little Rock a microcosm of the rest of the South or country?

Jay Jennings: I think that Little Rock is struggling with many of the same questions that communities all over the country are facing concerning urban planning and education and even athletics. The most recent Supreme Court decisions regarding integration have come from Seattle and Louisville, where diversity was defined in socioeconomic rather than baldly racial terms. And many cities and towns are trying to address the worries that parents have about sending their children to underperforming public schools, whether the cause is a drain from private schools or neighborhood segregation or other factors. Little Rock's divisions are deep-seated, and there's still work to do to unearth them and repair them, but the city has made some good decisions to mitigate the problems: it has attempted to revive the riverfront (with the great help of the Clinton Presidential Library); it has acknowledged its African-American history. But one of the key questions of the book was asked by Ken Richardson, a former Central football star now on the city board of directors, and it could be asked of the country as a whole: "Are we really embracing each other or are we just tolerating each other?"

Gelf Magazine: And yet, Little Rock and particularly Central High School seem exceptional in many ways. The city certainly has significantly greater racial diversity in the city schools than, as you cite, Dallas or Birmingham. Why do you think that is?

Jay Jennings: Little Rock was forced to face its demons by the Central High crisis, and that gave a lot of people, black and white, a stake in the school system. But more than that, I think, Central had great teachers before the crisis and there was strong continuity and commitment there—including Bernie Cox and his three-plus decades of teaching and coaching football. The parents, teachers, and principals prided themselves on sending kids to great colleges. And many Central graduates didn't want to see their school—and the magnificent building—become a run-down urban shell of its former self. Sports contributed to that as well: A lot of the players who played for the great all-white teams of the 1950s still thought of themselves as proud Tigers and gave back to the school and athletic programs. That sense of ownership trickled down to the junior-high and elementary schools as well. Little Rock's citizens, including many families that stretched back generations, refused to abandon their public schools.

Gelf Magazine: The football side of the story describes the mediocre season of a former powerhouse, followed by the collapse of the program and retirement of the coach. What is your sense of the future of Central football—has the balance of football power shifted to the suburbs and exurbs for good, just as it has, some would argue, in other educational domains?

Jay Jennings: One interesting development that I think has been a problem for urban school districts such as Little Rock's is the competition with one-high-school suburbs. In the latter, the players and the coaches know who their players are going to be when they're in the third grade, and they start grooming them for their system or seeing way ahead what kind of talent they're going to have. There's more variability in an urban school district. If a player doesn't like a coach or a system, he can transfer. Two of Central's best players from 2007 transferred the next season (for whatever reason). And private schools in an urban district can cherry-pick the best players (though no one admits it). So there's always a sense that public-school programs are scrambling to catch up with small-town or suburban districts—whether it's because of inferior facilities or whatever. Even so, if there's excitement generated by a coach or a school, by winning—that breeds further success, and Central has a long tradition to draw upon that I think will help the football team return to prominence.

Matthew Goldenberg

Matthew Goldenberg is a practicing psychiatrist in New Haven, CT.

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Article by Matthew Goldenberg

Matthew Goldenberg is a practicing psychiatrist in New Haven, CT.

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