Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

EDITORIALS>>LR paper rewrites history

The long commemoration of the desegregation of Central High School in 1957 should not recede into history without some notice of the sustained effort to rewrite the earlier history.

If you have followed the events in the state’s daily newspaper each day you will have detected the not-so-subtle effort by the paper to shade those events of 50 years ago in a way that is favorable to the governor who set the catastrophe into motion — but unfavorable to the facts.

A new book on the Little Rock crisis, “Turn Away Thy Son” by Elizabeth Jacoway, treats Gov. Orval E. Faubus as a victim of conniving moderates in Little Rock who drove him into a corner and left him no choice but to use the National Guard to keep black children from going to classes at the school.

The book seems to be factual enough; Jacoway simply wants Faubus, whom she liked, to be treated better by history. Her facts do not support her theory but she does not allow the factual disconnect to prevent her from advancing it.

The Democrat-Gazette’s “facts” are just wrong — indisputably, provably wrong.

The father of the newspaper’s executive editor, Griffin Smith, was an attorney for the segregationists allied with Faubus to halt school desegregation and a supporter of the governor. That may have nothing to do with the newspaper’s strange editorial conduct, but we mention it for whatever probative value it may have.

Starting soon after Smith’s hiring as editor, the paper began to insert a paragraph into every article mentioning the school crisis of 1957 that capsuled the events into three or four sentences.

This was the essential history, as told by the Democrat Gazette: Faubus sent National Guardsmen to the school to preserve peace, a federal judge ordered him to remove them, a mob then threatened the safety of the children, so President Eisenhower sent airborne troops to the school to protect the children.

The upshot was that Faubus was merely trying to protect people, and the violence and intimidation that eventually occurred was the fault of a federal judge.

The boilerplate paragraph — now it’s three paragraphs — changed from time to time as people called attention to the errors. The insertion began to include the important fact that Faubus’ order to the Guard was to prevent the black children from entering school. But this spring, Smith — or someone in charge at the paper — settled on wording that has not changed despite repeated citation of the official record.

Now the insertion always includes these words: On Sept. 20, complying with the order of a federal judge, Faubus removed the guardsmen. When the black students went to Central three days later on Sept. 23, a violent crowd gathered.

The students were removed for their protection. President Eisenhower then federalized the National Guard and sent 101st Airborne Division troops to the school the next day to enforce the school’s desegregation. The black students attended school the rest of the year under federal protection.

That is true, as far as it goes, except for the statement that Faubus removed the guardsmen to comply with the order of a federal judge, which seems to absolve the governor of any blame for what followed.

The judge gave no such order. The judge, Ronald N. Davies, issued an order to Faubus not to prevent the black students from attending Central High.

He said the governor should use any means he thought necessary, including the National Guard, to preserve peace and order at the school as long as the soldiers did not block children from attending classes. Faubus took the soldiers away on his own volition, and the mob that he had emboldened streamed in.

A hundred repetitions of the same sugary error do not change the truth. People pay a price when they try to sanitize unpleasant history. Let us leave it to tyrants.

Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader.