Fifty years ago this month, nine black students dubbed the "Little Rock Nine" braved angry crowds and the Arkansas National Guard to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. It was the first test of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling three years earlier and it ushered in decades of school desegregation plans throughout the country.
In June of this year, the Supreme Court came full circle, ruling that the use of race to determine what school a child can attend is unconstitutional. The decision comes as America is in the last generation of white majority. The majority of pre-schoolers today are non-white.
ABC News asked two education leaders with opposing views to comment on this month's historic anniversary, and on the apparent trend toward racial resegregation in schools.
What are your thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High School?
Dr. Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at the UCLA School of Law: I think it's really ironic to be celebrating Little Rock as we're re-segregating the South. And I think it's pretty cynical for the president of the United States to be praising the efforts of the Little Rock Nine at the same time his Justice Department has succeeded in urging the Supreme Court -- which has been changed by his appointments -- to forbidding even voluntary efforts for school desegregation.
Dr. Abigail Thernstrom, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: I don't think there's any analogy between Little Rock then and the racial clustering and ethnic clustering today. What the Little Rock kids faced -- we're into a very different era. And we've got very different problems, but segregation is no longer the law.
Are America's schools resegregating?
Orfield: Yes, and it's driven primarily by the United States Supreme Court. Desegregation in the South continued to increase continuously from the 1960's through the late 1980's, even though demographics were changing. When you get to the 1990's, it reverses [because a series of Supreme Court rulings released school systems from their desegregation plans]. Every year it gets worse.
Thernstrom: No. ... What's the meaning of segregation? I think the word should be confined to intentional separation of the races. What you've got now is, yes, more heavily minority schools -- black, Asian and Hispanic. But that's just representing the demographic reality, the huge influx of immigrants in recent decades.
Can separate schools be equal?
Orfield: Segregated schools are inferior for all groups, including whites. ... There was a brief submitted last fall to the Supreme Court by 553 social scientists that summarized 50 years of research on this issue that showed that students learned better in desegregated settings, they're more likely to go on to college, to finish college, they're more likely to want to live in integrated neighborhoods.
Thernstrom: First, what's an integrated classroom? Does that mean enough whites? ... I think it's frankly demeaning and patronizing to say that black kids or Hispanic kids ... can't learn unless they sit next to whatever whites and Asians bring to the classroom. It seems to me a really quite an ugly statement.
What is the direction for the future?
Orfield: We're trying to help school districts think about which factors might help them maintain some diversity. Should it be language? Should it be socio-economic status? Should it be geography? ... What we're doing is putting our fingers in dikes, trying to prevent total resegregation.
Thernstrom: Let's stop moving kids around and start educating them. The more time kids spend on the bus, the less time they have in the classroom.