Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"A Study in Second Class Citizenship": Race, Urban Development, and Little Rock's Gillam Park, 1934-2004

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"A Study in Second Class Citizenship": Race, Urban Development, and Little Rock's Gillam Park, 1934-2004

Article excerpt

HISTORIANS AND THE WIDER PUBLIC often view the civil rights movement primarily as a struggle for black freedom and equality unfolding between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s and led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This King-centered narrative begins with such seminal events as the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling and the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, which, along with the subsequent formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), propelled King into a national leadership position. It takes in landmark events that include the 1957 Little Rock crisis, the 1960 lunch-counter sit-in movement and the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the 1961 Freedom Rides launched by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, and various community-based campaigns run by King and the SCLC, most notably in Birmingham (1963) and Selma (1965). The narrative culminates in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended segregation in public facilities and accommodations, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removed obstacles to the black franchise in some southern states and provided active federal assistance to many southern black voters.1 While these achievements are important and quite rightly celebrated, this narrative tends to highlight the movement's successes and downplay its limitations and failures. Community studies have deepened our understanding of civil rights activism at local and state levels, exploring the origins of the movement prior to the 1950s and its legacies beyond the 1960s. But such studies often mirror the national civil rights narrative by focusing on the same principal issues of desegregation and voting rights.2

A different approach by urban historians has offered an important challenge to the way that we conceptualize the civil rights movement. Studies by Thomas Sugrue, Arnold Hirsch, and others, have explored the role of race and urban development in cities across the United States.3 In doing so, they have shifted the focus of historians from the short-term battles for desegregation and voting rights to the longer-term structural issues of urban planning and neighborhood development. This shift has in turn forced attention both on areas in which the civil rights movement failed to have a decisive impact and to relatively neglected episodes within the civil rights canon. These include, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC's 1965-66 Chicago campaign, which failed in its bid to win "open housing" for blacks in that northern city, and the failure of a 1966 civil rights bill that contained fair housing proposals.4 Studies by urban historians suggest that to understand the wider implications of the civil rights struggle we need to broaden our focus beyond what have been traditionally perceived as the key issues and to pay more attention to those areas where the movement failed.

The history of Gillam Park in Little Rock, Arkansas, is particularly instructive for understanding the link between race and urban development in that city and the nature of the ongoing struggle for black freedom and equality there. Gillam Park is made up of about 375 acres located in the southeast corner of Little Rock's city limits in the Granite Mountain area. Although at first glance it appears to be a marginal tract of land, distant from the main body of urban affairs, it has, in fact, often been at the heart of debates over race and city planning. In the 1930s, the city purchased the property as a site for Little Rock's first "separate but equal" park. In the 1940s, the site became central to a campaign by black activists for a more comprehensive plan to develop black recreation facilities but also illustrated the growing divide between African Americans pressing for equalization within the Jim Crow system and those urging the abolition of segregation and the integration of white facilities. …

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