After visiting the Martin Luther King historic site in Atlanta in 1993, I wrote a column wondering why Little Rock didn’t have a museum to commemorate the 1957 school crisis.
Lunches with interested parties followed. Many people worked hard. Important politicians — Bill Clinton, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Mike Huckabee and Jim Dailey, to name a few — were well-placed and inclined to help.
In 1997, on the 40th anniversary of the crisis, the Central High Museum Visitors Center was dedicated. Thousands watched the president and Gov. Mike Huckabee swing Central’s doors open to the Little Rock Nine. The memory still produces a lump in my throat.
And so there we were again at lunch last week, some of the same people who’d worked on establishing the National Historic Site at Central. We are at another crossroads. After nearly three-quarters-of-a-million dollars worth of planning, a climax nears on a $5.1 million Interior Department appropriation to build a larger, permanent visitor center. (The cramped Mobil service station, restored as the first visitor center, will remain as an adjunct.) The U.S. Senate has approved the money. The House has not. It will go to a conference committee in the next few weeks.
Opposition (not specifically related to the project) is expected in the Republican-controlled House. A defeat will set back the effort by years, maybe forever. Never again will Congress be presented with the appealing urgency of paying for a building that could be open for the 50th anniversary of a milestone in the battle for civil rights.
Here’s a message for House Republicans: The civil rights victory of 1957 is a victory that Republicans can claim. It remains a golden political opportunity today.
The Republicans are the party of Lincoln, after all. Southern Democrats waged massive resistance. A Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, called out federal troops when Gov. Orval E. Faubus blocked the Nine’s entrance to Central. A later Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, oversaw significant strides in school desegregation in the South. His cunning strategy moved blacks out of one-race schools without disturbing the party’s growing political base.
The civil rights acts that Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through Congress spelled the Democratic Party’s doom in the South, of course. Southern Republicans now are the party of Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott and several senators who refuse to join apologies for lynching. Other Republicans understand that a diverse party is a strong party. Ken Mehlman, the GOP national committee chair, is reaching out to black and Hispanic voters.
At a 2007 dedication of a new Central High visitor center, the lead speaking role would be President George W. Bush’s for the asking. Mike Huckabee will be a private citizen then. But his possible candidacy for president in 2008 and his moving message on racial equality during the 1997 dedication make him deserving of another high-profile role. Asa Hutchinson, running for governor now, could demonstrate the value of his past association with the Bush administration by delivering congressional support on this issue (as could his lobbyist brother Tim, a Central Museum supporter when he was in the Senate). Asa Hutchinson’s help would encourage the sort of warmth opponent Win Rockefeller expects in the black community on account of his father’s own noble record on racial equity.
It’s simple, really. Approval of the Central High appropriation would be a powerful and earned symbol for the Republican Party. Will it seize the opportunity?