‘Carry the Rock’ elegantly explores the troubled history and contentious present of Little Rock, Ark.

May 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 22, 2017

Jay Jennings’s 2010 nonfiction book, Carry the Rock, is an excellent look at a small city in the American Deep South. The writer skillfully uses the 2007 football season of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., as a prism for examining the state capital’s fractured racial past.

Central — indeed, all of Little Rock — may be most famous for the contentious integration of the school in 1957, the anniversary of which was celebrated during the season Jennings tracked the Tigers football squad. Over the course of 230 expertly written pages, the author sketches the history of Little Rock from the time its eponymous riverside feature was first marked on a map (as le Petit Rocher) by a French explorer in 1722 up through recent years. Along the way, he introduces us to Central’s coaching staff, a few of the school’s notable players and alumni, and some of the current-day residents who shape the civic discourse of the city.

The man at the heart of Carry the Rock is Bernie Cox. Gruff, old-fashioned but soft-voiced, Cox had won seven state championships from the time he became Central’s head coach in 1975 until Jennings embedded with the squad. Cox developed a specific way of doing things over the years, and he demands the same consistency of his players:

Cox told the freshmen that when they went to the locker room that day, there would be a table and on the table would be a notebook and they were to print their names in the notebook, along with their student numbers — so if there were a dozen John Smiths in the school, there would be no mistaking which one it was — and the names of their parents or guardians. He never said “parent” without also saying “guardian” because he had learned over the years that many of his players didn’t grow up like he did, with a mother and father and siblings in the same home. Often the grandmother or grandfather would be the one in charge, or an uncle or aunt, especially when the mother or father was fifteen or sixteen when the player was born.

He told the freshmen that he had notebooks just like the one they were going to print their names in that went all the way back to his first year, when Houston Nutt was his quarterback. Yes, the same coach who was now making millions of dollars coaching at the University of Arkansas once had been a kid just like them who had printed his name in the notebook where Cox kept all the grades and tardies and records from the building up the hill, i.e., the school. And he also told them that recently the parole board had contacted him about a former player of his from long ago who was now in prison, and the board was inquiring about what kind of citizen he had been when he’d played for Cox in high school. Cox went to his notebook and told the board what it said, and it wasn’t good. Your actions, even your actions now, as a ninth grader, he implied, had consequences. Cox shook his head and you could tell he was sorry about it, but his notebooks didn’t lie.

At a 2007 preseason meeting with team parents, the coach boiled down his code of conduct to five rules: “[N]o tardies in classes, no disrespect to teachers, be a good teammate, give 100 percent, don’t be selfish. Probably for me over the years, the No. 1 thing I see in young athletes today is, they’re selfish. I think they get that from the professional athletes who are so selfish. It’s all about money. We like our athletes not to be selfish.”

Throughout the book, Cox and his staff struggle to unite his team of distracted teenagers. One of their biggest challenges is igniting the moribund offense, where a replacement-level quarterback and a rotating cast of running backs struggle to find yards. Most chapters center around a single week in the life of the team.

Accounts of football practice and games are interspersed with dispatches from Little Rock’s turbulent past and contentious present. Jennings walks the reader through Central’s 1957 desegregation and its long aftermath, which included significant white flight from the city. One of the sympathetic figures from that tumultuous year was Ralph Brodie, a Central student who told then–New York Post reporter Mike Wallace that he and his peers supported desegregation as being the law of the land.

But Brodie has evolved into something of an apologist for his town’s white community, insisting in recent years that only a couple dozen of his classmates had been unwelcoming to the school’s nine black students. By contrast, Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, pegs the number at a few hundred. Brodie, it should be noted, was student body president, while the Nine were barred by the school board from participating in extracurricular activities.

Jennings also explores two exceedingly ugly incidents that took place in the spring of 1927, echoes of which resonate among Little Rock’s black community to this day: The hasty trial and execution of Lonnie Dixon, a black man accused of killing a white girl, and the daytime lynching of John Carter, an escaped black prisoner. A crowd of jubilant whites paraded Carter’s body around downtown Little Rock — even past City Hall — before setting it ablaze in the heart of the community’s black business district. (Per one account, a man at the bonfire directed traffic by waving one of the corpse’s charred arms.)

Those events happened, of course, just three decades before the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School. Relations between blacks and whites in the city today are certainly more cordial, but an undercurrent of distrust seems to run through Little Rock (and, indeed, many American boroughs). One of the city’s most polarizing figures, Jennings writes, is John Walker, a black attorney who has spent decades litigating cases in and around Little Rock an attempt to fight continuing segregation.

Jennings quotes an incisive question that Ken Richardson, a Central football star (and Stanford wide receiver) who now serves on Little Rock’s city council, once posed about race relations, both locally and nationally: “Are we really embracing each other or are we just tolerating each other?”

Many attempts to address that question have been made over the years in Little Rock, and the responses are frequently dispiriting. In 1967, Life magazine found, Jennings writes, “students willing to stand in a cafeteria line together and attend the same prom together [but] little more.” In 2002, testimony in a desegregation court case posited that Central had essentially divided itself into two institutions under the same roof — one where mostly white students took challenging courses and another where mostly black students took “distinctly less rigorous courses.” In 2007, Central’s student body president, an African-American, wrote a college admission essay about “the lack of interaction between black and white students and the disparity in the racial makeup of Advanced Placement courses” that was distributed widely throughout the school district, triggering much discussion.

In 2006, the seven-person school board became majority black for the first time, but the panel frequently votes 4-3 along racial lines, and Jennings chronicles a 2007 campaign for a school board seat that featured some ugly racial undertones.

Little Rock’s daily newspaper, Jennings observes, has a consistent history of favoring the interests of white community members over those of black ones. As in many American cities, Little Rock’s urban renewal projects, including highway construction, disproportionately affected poor black households. “As a result,” Jennings writes, “many black families from mixed neighborhoods were impelled to relocate into more-segregated areas or into housing projects that were, for all practical purposes, reserved for warehousing African-Americans.”

On the football team, Jennings observed de facto segregation: Black coaches tended to cluster with black coaches and white coaches with white coaches, a pattern that he also saw with the players. Still, Cox and his staff display a genuine passion for their players and for their coaching duties, even if they don’t always have the answers the students need.

Interest in and knowledge of football is helpful but not a prerequisite for readers of Carry the Rock. All in all, Jennings’s book is an indispensable snapshot of — as the subtitle states — “Race, Football and the Soul of an American City.”

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