Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Central book is suddenly more timely

Ralph Brodie dropped in at the Jacksonville Rotary Club on Monday to talk about his book, “Central in Our Lives: Voices from Little Rock Central High School, 1957-59.”

His cousin Thad Gray had invited Brodie to speak about those historic days. Also in the audience was Jacksonville Alderman Reedie Ray, whose cousin Gloria Ray was one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High, back when the Rays couldn’t have sat in a restaurant with whites.

Now, 50 years later, a black man is cruising toward the Democratic presidential nomination. In many ways, the showdown at Central High made it possible for Barack Obama to run for president a half a century later.

That message of reconciliation is what makes Brodie’s book special: Despite the ugliness, he reminds his readers and listeners that most people of all ages acted honorably and tried to keep Central open, even though Orval Faubus and his goons later succeeded in closing down the most famous high school in the world.

But that didn’t happen till the fall of 1958, and Brodie, who was student council president, track star and backup quarterback for what was thought to be the best high school football team in the nation, graduated earlier that year, with Ernest Green, the first black student to get a diploma at Central.

Both men became successful adults: Brodie a tax lawyer and estate planner, Green an investment banker and an assistant secretary of labor in the Carter administration.

“I was so embarrassed by what the governor did,” Brodie told the Rotarians. He defied the law not just once, but repeatedly.”

Brodie, who attended the University of Arkansas, where he was a great runner, earned a law degree and has had a successful career, but, at the age of 67, he wanted to tell the story of Central High School from the inside: About how almost all of the 2,000 students attended classes, did not cause trouble and made something of their lives.

“Central in Our Lives” includes the voices of bright young people who welcomed nine outsiders to Central even while other students harassed them and mobs screamed outside and Gov. Faubus defied the law.

“When the year was over, despite all the distractions by the governor, the National Guard, the media and the federal courts, we survived without a major injury. Most of us did more than just survive. We did succeed in a way that would make most schools envious.”

He’s talking about the dozens of National Merit semifinalists during those troubled years, the state football championships, the great basketball teams, the athletes like himself who went on to the university and excelled there as well.

He has written an important book about the crisis as seen from the inside.

We’ve written about Brodie’s book before — it was published last fall to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the crisis — but “Central in Our Lives” is even more important as we watch an African American run for president: Central paved the way for Obama.

Somebody should send him a copy of this fine book.