Paul Greenberg

Free at last, thank God almighty, free at last!

Well, almost.

The news last Friday out of a federal district court in Little Rock, Ark., may have marked the end of the oldest established permanent floating school desegregation case in the United States.

Or at least the beginning of the end. There's still a lot of lawyerin' and politickin' ahead, all of which will continue to distract from the real business of education here in Little Rock and anyplace else - what goes on in each classroom between each student and teacher.

Maybe someday soon we'll get to concentrate on that in little ol' Little Rock - instead of the enormous legal fees, myriad reports, bureaucratic infighting, and legal confrontations that spill over into the community as a whole.

But for now let's pause for a rare moment of celebration amidst what for years looked like the state and local version of Dickens' Jarndyce v. Jarndyce - the kind of case whose principal function is to support generations of lawyers.

Because for now a federal judge has found that Little Rock's school district acted in good faith to remove racial barriers, and released the district from court supervision.

It was an historic day, marking the end - at least for now - of a 24-year-old case that was only the latest phase in an epic of litigation that goes all the way back to the bad old days, specifically 1956.

Before starting to throw confetti, a couple of caveats: The Hon. William R. Wilson's decision may be appealed. And this whole, very long-running case and saga won't be concluded till neighboring school districts are out of court, too, for they were involved in fostering racial segregation in the schools, too.

But now one can envision the end of all this litigiousness and the bad feelings that go with it. Roy Brooks, the school district's reform-minded and results-oriented school superintendent, may finally be able to focus all his considerable talents on education instead of litigation.

No, we haven't reached the mountaintop, but at least we can glimpse it from here.

This decision also marks considerable progress for (Wild) Bill Wilson himself. The judge's 49-page order is marked by more than his usual informality. It shows a sense of proportion and perspective, and just plain common sense in general. Not to mention good will toward all concerned, including those witnesses the judge didn't much credit.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.