Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

FROM THE PUBLISHER >>No troops when you need them

Most people in Little Rock resented the arrival of the 101st Airborne Division to ensure the integration of Central High School 50 years ago  — many of those troops were flown into Little Rock Air Force Base — but almost exactly the year before, I would have welcomed the 101st into my native Hungary.

That was back when the Soviets reoccupied Hungary after they crushed a people’s uprising. Hungarians pleaded for help from the West, but none arrived.

I often wonder what would have happened if President Eisenhower had sent the 101st into Hungary in 1956. That move could have started World War III, but as my fellow Hungarian emigre Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, might have said, the doomsday option isn’t necessarily the end of the world.

As it happened, Eisenhower weighed his options and decided Hungary wasn’t worth risking a world war over, although I’m not sure the Soviets would have fought us on the ground in Hungary.

In any event, the Soviet empire began to crumble 30 years later, starting in Hungary, and the rest of the empire fell a few years after that without a shot being fired.

Eisenhower was a far more capable general than many people realize, and he had good political instincts, too. Although he avoided a confrontation with the Soviets over Hungary, he knew he couldn’t let Faubus and his fellow insurrectionists defy court orders to integrate Central High School. Ike had no choice but to send the troops to Little Rock.

Since I know several (white) people who attended Central in 1957, I’ve written about their experiences during the integration crisis and their resentment at being assigned minor roles during the upcoming 50th anniversary celebrations.

I don’t know Ralph Brodie, the former Central star athlete and student council president, but his book, “Central in Our Lives: Voices from Little Rock Central High School, 1957-59,” written with Marvin Schwartz, does a lot to correct the misconception that few white students acted honorably during those dark days.

The forgotten young white men and women, now well into their 60s, are bitter, perhaps for good reason, but not as bitter as me: I was a little kid living in a lousy refugee camp in Austria back then because the West allowed the Soviets to retake Hungary.

Sure, that’s ancient history and it happened on the other side of the world, while just across the river, Central shaped the future of the civil rights movement, as well as the lives of its young people and changed the course of its politics as Winthrop Rockefeller succeeded Orval Faubus and put the racists out of business.

Faubus, who tried to prevent nine black students from entering Central so he would keep his job, and the ringleaders who egged him on have long been discredited. They didn’t care about education — they closed down a high school that was ranked 38th in the U.S. academically and had 22 National Merit semifinalists — or even about athletics — they wrecked a national-champion football team just to keep nine kids out.

A lot of people lost their minds over Central, and a lot of others didn’t even have minds to lose — they were that dumb.
But the world next week will honor those black and white kids who learned together, prayed together, joked together. They survived tough times, and many of them did very well, including Ernest Green, Central’s first black graduate, who has excelled in business and politics, and Brodie, who became a prominent tax lawyer.

It took 50 years for Brodie to tell his story. The book includes interviews with some 100 participants in the Central drama, who showed up for classes in defiance of the demagogues. Only a tiny minority caused trouble at Central, and most of them, if they’re still alive, will stay away from next week’s festivities.

Brodie has been invited to speak, and when he embraces the Little Rock Nine, imagine if you could turn the clock back 50 years and make it seem as if September 1957 were a routine start of another school year — no troops, no mobs, no hatred.
Nothing to be scared of but Latin, as one of the students entering the school said 50 years ago.