Columns » John Brummett

50 years later, some don't get it

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Less than four months from the 50th anniversary of the integration crisis at Little Rock Central High, we’re running into a problem with people trivializing the human oppression that occurred and discounting the brave history that was made.

Take, for example, an editorial page cartoon in the Sunday edition of the statewide newspaper in Little Rock.

The artist drew a keen likeness of that famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, school books held to her chest, walking meekly but valiantly toward Central that morning. A young white girl contorts her face to shout angrily and ignorantly from behind at this all-alone young black girl.

An adjoining panel of the cartoon showed Roy Brooks, the current Little Rock school superintendent, getting shouted at angrily from behind by Katherine Mitchell, the current school board president.

The analogy is that Brooks suffers as Eckford suffered and that Mitchell disgraces herself as the now-apologetic white girl disgraced herself in September 1957.

Let us consider this implied equivalence: Eckford was an adolescent, a victim of racial bigotry and discrimination, surrounded by crowds of angry whites as she dared to do what a federal court had historically granted her the human and civil right to do. Brooks is having a hard time of it, too. He is having his contract bought out for about a half-million dollars. That’s because four of the seven school board members, black like him, believe he has defied supervision from the elected board to run the schools at the behest of certain businessmen downtown.

One of those businessmen is the publisher of the paper running this cartoon. It’s a paper that has long distinguished itself by rewriting the history of 1957 to say Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to keep the peace, rather than, as is factual and disgraceful, defy the law of the land and stand in the way of this brave young Elizabeth Eckford.

I’m one who thinks Brooks has been effective in some respects. I’m one who wishes the superintendent could remain in the job under some kind of probation by which he’d be required to work with the people bequeathed him by the democratic process. I’m one who thinks Mitchell has not behaved well, even seeking outrageously to intimidate Brooks’ deputies out of standing by him. I’m one who acknowledges certain potential racial implications in this debacle, if, that is, some white people do as they threaten and pull their kids out because they trust only Brooks.

What I’m not is one who can keep his breath that anyone would dare to liken the fate of a terminated contemporary school superintendent to what beset Eckford and those other eight black kids in 1957.

Some people have about four months to learn history, context and proportionality.

We confront as well a group that is significantly less offensive, but still misguided. It consists of a few white students at Central from ’57. They think they have been personally and unfairly besmirched in history by the actions of 50 or so who got all the media’s attention. We’ve seen a movement by some of these folks to have their peaceful acquiescence noted in some way as part of these 50th anniversary observances.

They are right, no doubt, that they behaved adequately. They are right, no doubt, that they don’t deserve broad besmirching. In fact, there is the transcript of an interview Mike Wallace conducted a half-century ago with Ralph Brodie, the Little Rock lawyer who was president of the ’57 Central class. The young Brodie acquits himself well, speaking moderately, pragmatically and, for Southern white people at the time, progressively.

But what they are not right about is that this 50th anniversary commemoration ought to concern itself at all with minor peripherals such as their incidental inconvenience.

This is about genuinely important things — human oppression, bravery, the rule of law, nine black children and the thousands of relevant, vivid and powerful words in that disgracefully trivialized photograph of Elizabeth Eckford.

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