Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

EDITORIALS>>The real face of Arkansas

“This is a tragic day in the history of the republic — and Little Rock, Arkansas, is the scene of the tragedy,” began an editorial in the Arkansas Gazette 50 years ago yesterday morning. “In one sense we rolled back our history to the Reconstruction era when federal troops moved into position at Central High to uphold the law and preserve the peace.”

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne had rolled into the city the previous day, and that morning they escorted nine black students past the sullen crowds and through the portals of that magnificent building. Every school day for the rest of the year the soldiers would protect those youngsters — so skinny and scared and vulnerable when we see those old photographs and TV footage now.

That day and particularly the two school days immediately preceding it, the whole world got a visage of what they assumed was Little Rock and Arkansas, the twisted and demented faces of the mob that gathered at the school to scream racial epithets at the nine youngsters and to beat black adults who showed up, including a Memphis photographer who was crippled by a thrashing across the street from the school at the hands of a band of white men and never recovered.

The pictures, some of the most famous being those by Will Counts, a young photographer for the Arkansas Democrat, flashed around the world, appearing on the front pages of newspapers from St. Louis to Tokyo. They made history books and anthologies, documentary films and movies, and in the past week many of them surfaced again in the media on the occasion of the 50th anniversary, to horrify another generation.

The pictures from Little Rock were a galvanizing force in the civil rights movement. The country and the rest of the world saw the frightening face of bigotry and ignorance and thus the pictures may have done more than all the court decisions and the legislation at the federal and state levels to advance the civil rights cause.

As that Gazette editorial on Sept. 25, 1957, observed prophetically, Gov. Orval E. Faubus had dealt “a major and perhaps lethal blow to the cause of segregation which he purported to uphold.” Three weeks earlier, defying orders of the federal courts, Faubus had used Arkansas National Guard soldiers to prevent the black students from entering the school and gave impetus to the mob impulses of hundreds of men and women who would pour into town to support the governor.
But what a profoundly different picture went out from Central High yesterday morning. If that could only have been us 50 years ago. . . A thoroughly integrated and ebullient crowd of thousands — children and adults, seemingly about even black and white — stood and cheered lustily as each of the Little Rock Nine, some now stooped or in a wheelchair but every one vibrant, made a short talk from a platform in front of the famous portals of still the handsomest school in America.
Yes, Bill Clinton, the former president, made still another good speech. His wife and the odds-on favorite to be the next president was there, too, though she did not speak.

Little Rock’s new mayor, Mark Stodola, made a stirring and visionary talk about the need to destroy still more social and economic barriers in his city. Gov. Mike Beebe was thoughtful and appropriate. The president of the 2007 senior class at Central gave a remarkable speech that actually overshadowed the talks of the big politicians. There were other talks by notables.

But none approached the brief remarks of any of the nine. They seemed not to speak from text or notes, but the occasion brought from each a few moments of unsurpassed eloquence.

They told funny stories, they expressed gratitude to each other and to the parents who saw them through the ordeal, and they were optimistic and they were forgiving.

All but one had fled Little Rock after school, never to return except for these occasions.

Speaking at a breakfast Monday morning in the Great Hall of the Governor’s Mansion, Ernest Green, the first black graduate of Central, recounted the successful and beneficent lives of the nine after their rendezvous with history at Central.
Referring to those who blocked their paths at Central in 1957 and the silent ones who wanted them to fail, he asked, “What could they have been afraid of?”

Seeing and hearing these intelligent, cheerful and reassuring men and women in the twilight of their lives at the place that transformed their own lives as well as the country, everyone in the international audience surely wondered the same thing. What could people have been afraid of?

The whole extraordinary week of ceremonies and dialogues about what it all meant was redemptive for the city and the state, we would like to think. Arkansas got to show the world its better nature.

Now if they could apply the lessons to their continuing divisiveness. Starting with the Little Rock schools, and all our schools.