Skip to content Skip to footer

Students Sue Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders for Silencing Black History

Decades after the Little Rock Nine, students at Central High School are still fighting for anti-racist education.

The front entrance of Little Rock Historic Central High School, which was the site of a successful integration campaign by nine Black students in 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, is perhaps best known for the “Little Rock Nine,” the first Black students to walk through the school’s grand front doors. The year was 1957, three years after the Supreme Court declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional, and the gears of change were grinding to a halt.

After the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the school board in Little Rock eventually volunteered to desegregate, a process that faced fierce backlash from white residents. Prior to what should have been the nine Black teenagers’ first day in class, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the state’s National Guard to block their entrance. A couple days later, a judge ordered the state to let the teens attend class, but the National Guard was joined by an angry mob of white residents who blocked the way.

The Little Rock Nine would eventually prevail, although not without plenty of bullying by their white peers. President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and sent U.S. Army troops to the scene, allowing the students to finally attend class. The nine students became civil rights icons, and images of the white mob and guardsmen blocking the entrance to Little Rock Central High are some of the most recognizable of the era.

Today, two-thirds of students at the top performing high school are Black. However, if Central High teachers and students were to draw parallels between Little Rock Nine and the current effort by Arkansas Republicans to censor discussions of race and Black history in schools, they would likely run afoul of a controversial state law that civil rights attorneys argue is a blatant violation of free speech rights, according to a landmark lawsuit recently filed against Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and state education officials.

Filed on behalf of the NAACP and teachers, students and parents at Central High School, the lawsuit challenges a controversial section of the LEARNS Act, a new law championed by Sanders to promote school privatization and ban what she has called “left-wing indoctrination” and “critical race theory” in public schools. Similar anti-education initiatives popped up in red states across the country after intentionally manufactured disinformation about critical race theory (CRT) and schoolhouse diversity initiatives went viral on the right.

CRT is a college-level field of ideas and study about institutional racism that is not taught in K-12 public schools. However, the right used CRT as a catchall term for anti-racist education as Republicans attempted to harness white backlash to uprisings for racial justice in 2020, an effort Governor Sanders helped to engineer as one of former President Donald Trump’s many press secretaries.

“It seems to be there’s a movement afoot around the country to restrict not only [Advanced Placement] courses in African American studies, but almost any other thing that you can like think of, that might lead to students developing a more thorough understanding of what’s truly going on around them,” Little Rock Nine member Terrance Roberts told local media in September.

The LEARNS Act does not include an accurate or clear definition of “critical race theory,” and Arkansas Republicans are on record struggling to pin one down. Due to the law’s vague language, educators are now limiting discussions on topics ranging from affirmative action to Jim Crow laws and even the Little Rock Nine, according to the lawsuit.

Anything that explores the historical suffering of Black people in the United States is suspect, including one student’s upcoming presentation on the legacy of slave codes in the antebellum South. Sadie Belle, a Central High student, will be examining whether the legacy of slave codes still has an impact today.

“Sadie Belle will be examining whether the codes enacted to further the subjugation of Black people in America, even after the Civil War, continue to systematically perpetuate injustices today,” the lawsuit states, before quoting from the LEARNS Act: “It is unclear if, by doing so, Sadie Belle has ‘purposely or otherwise, promote[d] teaching that would indoctrinate students with [prohibited] ideologies’ because her analysis and conclusion is one that could be perceived as one supported by CRT.”

Teachers could face sanctions and potentially lose their education license for violating the law, which also repealed longstanding employment protections for schoolteachers. The law unconstitutionally chills speech in a way that unfairly targets Black students, teachers and their ideas, according to the lawsuit.

The Arkansas Department of Education’s website says the LEARNS Act prohibits classroom instruction that would conflict with civil rights law by encouraging discrimination, including “indoctrination” into “critical race theory.” However, experts have repeatedly debunked the idea that CRT promotes discrimination against white people or anyone else, although the idea of “anti-white discrimination” remains popular on the right. The department’s website does not offer a definition of “critical race theory,” and a spokesperson did not provide one in response to an inquiry from Truthout.

It all started the day Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders took office in early 2023. Sanders, a political scion who gained fame working for Trump, quickly issued an executive order declaring that CRT does not belong in schools and teachers should not indoctrinate students. Critics pointed out that there was no evidence of either occurring in Arkansas schools and chalked the order up to a political stunt in line with the 1776 Commission, the Trump administration’s debunked study of United States history that was meant to counter the 1619 Project, the New York Times award-winning series that put Black people and slavery at the center of the story.

Then came the LEARNS Act, which also set up a voucher system for students wishing to attend private schools that opponents say is clearly meant to funnel public funds toward religious institutions and threatens to starve out public schools in Arkansas. To implement the law, the Arkansas Department of Education purged the state’s recommended social studies materials for teachers of “hard-fought achievements won by African Americans” because they include the context of generations of suffering under Jim Crow and slavery, according to the lawsuit.

A protest over the LEARNS Act broke out at Little Rock Central High as Sanders signed the bill in March 2023, and the action drew national news coverage and support from the Little Rock Nine. Secretary Oliva, who was handpicked by Governor Sanders, was dispatched to observe the school’s Advanced Placement (AP) African American studies class taught by Ruthie Walls.

Walls was named “Teacher of the Year” the previous school year and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. A day after notifying the school, Oliva showed up to observe her teaching an AP African American Studies class, which had been approved by the state as a pilot five months earlier, according to the lawsuit. Toward the end of class, Walls paused her instruction to give Oliva a copy of the curriculum.

Shortly after, the principal of Central High told Walls that Oliva was “very complimentary” of her instruction and said that “she’s really teaching African American history, and I don’t have a problem with that,” according to the lawsuit.

However, the lawsuit claims that the anti-CRT provision of the LEARNS Act is preventing a majority-Black group of students at Central High School from earning credits in AP African American Studies, which would typically provide high school students with a chance to earn credit toward a college degree. State officials say the AP class is still a pilot program and is approved for the next school year, but this offers little consolation to graduating seniors.

The lawsuit claims AP African American Studies was piloted at Central High during the 2022-2023 school year without incident, and six schools requested to offer the class in 2023-2024. Three days before the school year began, the Arkansas Department of Education abruptly “revoked” approval for the class, according to the lawsuit. After making a series of bureaucratic excuses involving the College Board, which administers AP classes nationally, officials singled out AP African American Studies for allegedly putting teachers at risk of violating the anti-CRT provision. Course materials would need to be reviewed to ensure no violations of the LEARNS Act.

Secretary Oliva was soon publicly defending the move only about five months after Central High students walked out in protest of Sanders signing the LEARNS Act. Sanders would make her own appearance on Fox News to defend the decision to remove AP African American Studies from state’s approved list of courses, where she railed against the “propaganda leftist agenda” that is teaching kids to “hate America.” During her inauguration speech in January 2023, Sanders claimed public school teachers were “brainwashing” students.

In a statement to Truthout, Oliva said AP African American Studies was still being piloted in 2023, and the department advised the six schools that the class can count toward high school credits this year after officials confirmed that course materials do not violate state law. He said the lawsuit “falsely accuses” his department of not allowing students to participate in the pilot program and receiving benefits from the class.

“After discussions, College Board updated course framework and assured it does not violate Arkansas law,” Oliva said. “The department approved the course for the 24-25 school year and will continue to work with districts to ensure courses offered to students do not violate Arkansas state law.”

The plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to issue an injunction blocking the anti-CRT section of the LEARNS Act. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 30.

Colton Gilbert, the debate coach at Central High, said in a recent legal filing that the anti-CRT provision makes his job of helping students defend positions on controversial topics virtually impossible.

“Every day I walk into class and think to myself: is today’s conversation the one that will get me fired?” Gilbert said.