Columns » Max Brantley

History repeats

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When the museum for the 1957 Central High desegregation crisis was in the planning stages, some white Central students of that era lobbied vigorously — and ultimately successfully — for a museum display that emphasizes that most Central students were not troublemakers.

As a member of the museum's board, I didn't favor the addition. It was a sop to people who seemed preoccupied more with the disruption in THEIR senior year than the history that was made. It contributed little to what was scant space for interpretation of events before, during or after the crisis.

That dispute has arisen again. Many white students of the era have boycotted efforts by the National Park Service, which now operates the historic site, to compile oral histories. They won't talk to the press. They want Ralph Brodie, student council president in 1957-58, to be given a prominent speaking part during the main commemoration event Sept. 25. Virgil Miller, the black banker who leads the city's celebration, is inclined to let Brodie speak. But he wonders, naturally, if Brodie wants the occasion to redeliver his half-century-old complaint that white students have been unfairly stigmatized.

Brodie's pre-occupation was on display again last week in USA Today. In an article that talked of the harassment that black students endured, Brodie was quoted as saying 95 percent of Central students didn't harass black students.

“I'm sure they were bullied … but that's history,” Brodie told USA Today. He told the newspaper 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.”

Yes, and millions of Germans minded their own business during World War II. But, on that justification alone, I wouldn't be inclined to pay them tribute at Holocaust commemorative events.

Silence can be just as punishing as violence. Forget race. Imagine you have just moved to a high school of 2,000 in Michigan. Imagine “only” 100 of those students jostled you, spat on you, threw rocks at you, harassed you and otherwise made life miserable every day. Imagine that the other 1,900 students minded their own business. Completely. They never shared a lunch table, joke or night out. They never offered so much as a “good morning” in home room. Imagine that you required an Army escort to get home. Imagine that one adult supporter had her home fire-bombed for friendship with you.

Now, 50 years later, imagine somebody has decided to pay tribute to your endurance and courage. Should the program include a tribute to those who shunned you because they did not throw rocks?

Don't misunderstand. I'm sure most students were good kids who gave no thought to the invisible bruises of silence. The silent majority's actions are further understandable given the hatred and reprisals fomented by adult leaders. But that doesn't make “minding your own business” courageous or laudable. Excuse-making has no place on a program for nine who endured the nearly unendurable.

Should Brodie speak, he'd do well to find inspiration in classmate Dent Gitchel, quoted in the same USA Today article. Gitchel said he had been bewildered by events and, like most, didn't say or do anything in 1957.

“I wish today that I had had the insight or courage. I wish I had reached out and taken a stand.”

His words remind us that it is never too late to say you are sorry.

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