Jay Jennings, a veteran sportswriter and native son of Little Rock, returned to his hometown to take the pulse of the city and the school as the fiftieth anniversary of the integration fight approached. He found a compelling story in the school's football team, where black and white students came together under longtime coach Bernie Cox, whose philosophy of discipline and responsibility and punishing brand of physical football know no color. A very private man, Cox nevertheless allowed Jennings full access to the team, from a preseason program in July through the Tigers' final game in November.
In the season Jennings masterfully chronicles, the coach finds his ideas sorely tested in his attempts to unify the team, and the result is a story brimming with humor, compassion, frustration, and honesty. Carry the Rock tells the story of the dramatic ups and downs of a high school football season, and it reveals a city struggling with its legacy of racial tension and grappling with complex, subtle issues of contemporary segregation. What Friday Night Lights did for small-town Texas, Carry the Rock does for the urban south and for any place like Little Rock, where sports, race, and community intersect.
Little Rock, Arkansas, then and now
In 1957, nine African-American teenagers integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is considered a milestone in American civil rights history. Sadly, not much progress has been made in Little Rock since. Though ostensibly a football book, Jay Jennings’ Carry the Rock provides a sobering, unfiltered history of the city’s race relations.
Jennings returned to his hometown in 2007 to cover Central High School’s football team, perennially one of the state’s best, and to take a long look at the town 50 years after its historic act. The season was a disappointment, as longtime coach Bernie Cox struggled to reach his players and recapture the glory of past teams. This team lacked togetherness, which was a common theme in the school—the student body president’s college-admissions essay described the lack of interaction between blacks and whites—and in the city. Despite countless legal battles to promote diversity in the schools, for years white households have sent their kids to private schools or have moved to the surrounding suburbs. Neighborhoods are defined by race, with the completion of I-630 in 1985 serving as a dividing line. Little Rock’s Board of Education didn’t have a black majority until 2006, and when the school system hired its first black superintendent, it ended with an enraged Board of Education and legal agony.
Even the celebration of Central’s integration leaves alumni and residents with mixed feelings. Ralph Brodie, the student body president in 1957, wrote a book declaring that the white students who went about their business that year deserved praise and that “everyone who stepped inside Central High that year exhibited courage every day.” However, Jennings says, “There were lingering doubts in the black community about the degree to which Little Rock’s white citizens were willing, or have ever been willing, to accept responsibility for the historic, and the continuing, divisiveness in the city.”
Though Jennings doesn’t tie together the book’s three elements (the city’s racial climate, Central’s 50th anniversary and the football team’s travails), he shows that a sweeping social change does not guarantee acceptance—that many courageous, selfless acts must still be performed year after year, and there are no assurances that those acts will be acknowledged.