Ernie Dumas has been making the rounds of various events commemorating the 50th, and writes his observations:
Mike and Ginger Beebe threw open the Governor’s Mansion for almost 24 hours of nonstop celebrations for the Little Rock Nine Sunday and Monday, all of it emceed with exceptional grace by the governor. Owing to the historic irony — Orval Faubus plotted his course in 1957 in the old living quarters now hooked onto the lavish Janet Huckabee Great Hall — it created some emotional moments. Sunday night, Beebe squired the nine into the living room where Orval, William J. Smith and others talked about the governor’s options in the fateful year of 1957-58.
Speaking to some 200 at a Political Animals breakfast in the Great Hall Monday morning, Ernest Green, the first African-American graduate of Central High, gave a moving account of his personal journey through that year and his life, breaking up when he tried to read the names of his eight colleagues. He described what they had done in life since 1957 and wondered about the people who were so horrified that they were trying to go to a white school. “What could they have been afraid of?” he asked.
Green recalled when he first began to realize the station where his race placed him in Little Rock. In the blistering summer of his sixth year of life he was in a Little Rock department store and desperately wanted a drink of water. A store employee spotted him and leaped between him and the water fountain. Only white people could get a drink there, he was told. His father took him to a concert in a city park but a policeman barred them from entering because only whites could listen.
“The people of Little Rock didn’t want to see us hurt, but they wanted to see us fail,” he said. He said he was fixed with laser intensity on the idea of graduation, and all nine studied hard so that they would not fail.
Of the man who was responsible for the crisis and who struggled with his duty and his political destiny, Green remembered lines from Rev. Martin Luther King: “It’s always the right time to do the right thing.”
Sander Vanocur, the New York Times and NBC newsman who spent most of a year in Little Rock in 1958-59, was the star at a noon lunch in the Great Hall that celebrated the news people who covered the crisis in one fashion or another. Vanocur was similarly emotional describing Little Rock and his friendship with Harry Ashmore, the executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette.
“I drank too much last night,” Vanocur began. “But that was because in 1958 I couldn’t get a god-damned drink anywhere.”
He remembered covering Faubus’s re-election race in 1958 against Chris Finkbeiner and Judge Lee Ward. He did not believe that Faubus was a racist at heart but that Faubus had brought immense shame upon Arkansas, which of all the Southern states deserved better.
He thought the celebrations should mention Gene Smith, the tough Little Rock police chief in 1958-59, who directed fire hoses on the mob and may have saved the lives of the African-American students at the school. Smith was so consumed by the events that he killed himself.
Vanocur said he could not decide whether the events of the week that he came to participate in were properly a celebration of what the nine youngsters had done to clear the path for others or a lamentation for “what happened to this city,” which he said did not deserve the opprobrium and infamy that Faubus brought to it. He had trouble finishing the thought.
Beebe presented small plaques to some 20 people in the media who were writing, editing or taking pictures in 1957-60 and are still around.