Columns » John Brummett

Scholarly, but off the wall

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Betsy Jacoway, a Little Rock native now residing in Newport, is an unfailingly nice, ever-genteel woman. She possesses sterling doctoral credentials as historian and author of a book published this year, “Turn Away Thy Son,” about the Little Rock Central High crisis a half-century ago.

She became obsessed by those events because, as a serious adult scholar, she came to realize that she had lived blithely and obliviously through them as a privileged and insulated young white girl attending Little Rock Hall in the silk-stocking district across town.

After 30 years' work she has produced a narrative that practically jumps off the page with fine reporting, engaging prose and brave challenges of conventional thinking.

My compliments on her diligence and gumption.

And that's quite enough of that.

As I've written twice before, and now do so again to try to make this third time the charm: Jacoway is simply quite off the wall when she devotes part of this book and many of her recent lectures, including one I sat through Friday, to seeking to establish the late Gov. Orval E. Faubus as some kind of victim in those historic events.

I attended Jacoway's presentation at a symposium at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School. Her oral report was more striking than her book. Maybe it was because she had synthesized the multi-layered written narrative to get into her 20 allotted minutes her essential point, which was a sympathetic explanation for Faubus.

She justifies this sympathetic explanation — which, she insisted to me afterward, was not sympathetic, but contextual — by contending that countless people in Little Rock had behaved badly and shouldn't be given a pass because of the horns we've put on Faubus.

She's right about many people behaving badly. But Faubus was the only one who was the elected governor of the state. Thus he was the only one who could dare to abuse the state's militia in an anarchist's defiance of federal law.

I must admit I chuckled at the absurdity a couple of times in Jacoway's presentation.

It first happened when she said that Faubus, a supposed liberal down deep, was so politically marginalized by the pressures brought by that segregationist blowhard, Jim Johnson, that Faubus “found himself promising from the stump that there would be no forced integration” while he was governor.

“Found himself promising from the stump” is euphemistic. It is defensive, mitigating, softening and excusing. It invokes the passive voice in place of the appropriate active voice to make a direct action seem less than it is. It implies that something happened to Faubus, not that Faubus made it happen.

Faubus didn't find himself doing anything. He chose to say what he said. He knew where he was. He was right there, in full adult control of his own mouth.

My second chuckle came when Jacoway sought to advance her theme that Faubus was cornered by manipulators into having no other choice than to call out the National Guard.

She said a “quixotic character named Jimmy Karam” moved into the Governor's Mansion that fateful last weekend and screened all telephone calls so that only segregationists could get through.

Who the heck let Karam in? How did this rascal get past the State Police? Where did Jimmy put the usual phone receptionist?

Are we to believe that Orval wandered downstairs that Saturday morning, saw a large and strange man attending the phone in this official residence, walked back up the stairs and asked of his wife: “Alta, hon, who is that guy down there answering the phone?”

Jacoway concluded by saying that the late Arkansas Gazette editor, Harry Ashmore, was wrong to call Central the “crisis that Faubus made.” She said it was the “crisis Faubus backed into.”

To her credit, her very last words were that Faubus backed all the way to the “wrong side” of history. But she thinks ol' Orv just looked up one day to “find himself” there.

He put himself there, of course.

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