by Max Brantley
Remember when the Little Rock airport was cleared last week when security officers grew suspicious about what turned out to be camera equipment of a USA Today photographer?
The photographer was shooting for a story in today's paper on the Central Crisis 50th. It focuses on the ramifications of the famous incident in which Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, fed up with harassing white students, dumped chili on a white student. It was a life-changing moment for her; she would eventually be expelled. And it was a course change, too, for Dent Gitchel, a white innocent bystander splattered by chili, who grew up to be a lawyer and law professor. The episode made him start thinking, he told USA Today.
Gitchel, now 66, says that on the day he got splattered, "I never saw Minnijean before I felt something warm on my shirt."
He says the incident led him to consider his place in the "parallel universes" that whites and blacks inhabited. "All this stuff was swirling around me," he recalls. "I was bewildered by what was going on."
The article recounts the abuse the black students endured daily. If all white students weren't part of the abuse, they were part of a general silence toward black students, a silence that Gitchel, for one, regrets.
Through it all, Gitchel recalls, he did nothing. "I just wanted to get along with my life. I didn't say anything or do anything," he says during the lunchroom interview as Trickey listens intently. "I wish today that I had had the insight or courage. I wish I had reached out and taken a stand."
Not so regretful sounding is Ralph Brodie, the student council president in 1957-58, who has crusaded for years for a more sympathetic view of white students. Today, he's lobbying for a speaking role in the 50th commemoration main event at which he could be expected to repeat his long refrain.
Brodie, a tax lawyer in Little Rock, is angry at how the media have depicted whites at Central. He says 95% did not harass the black students. He notes editorials in the school newspaper, which called for "peaceful neutrality."
"I'm sure they were bullied … but that's history," Brodie says. He says white school officials sympathetic to desegregation received death threats. "When there are people you know who are having those problems, you got to mind your own business, and that's what most of us did."
Minding your own business is not an act of courage or sympathy. It may be understandable, even defensible. Laudable? Worth commemoration on a par with the witness of the Little Rock Nine? What do you think?
NOTE: Hazel Massery, the student shouting at Elizabeth Eckford in the famous Will Counts' photo above, declined to talk to USA Today, her brief "reconciliation" with Eckford long over.