Columns » Max Brantley

Seizing the moment

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A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone;Short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.

The old hymn came to me as I struggled for something to say on the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School, the beginning of the end of massive Southern resistance to the rule of law.

Moments small and large are soon gone, the hymn says. It doesn't mean they aren't worth remembering, only that the breadth of time provides vital context.

We can, for example, look at Little Rock 50 years later and find ample reason to temper celebration.

Since 1957, Little Rock neighborhoods have grown more segregated. Its schools are majority black because many in the majority white population have fled to private schools. Black students, as a group, score far below white students on standardized tests.

Most of our corporate boardrooms and even our churches remain segregated. A scant number of people of any age can truly claim regular social contact with people of a different race.

UALR surveys, mentioned in this issue, detect a sharp difference in how black and white people view the world. Black people tend to be more distrustful of others and more likely to think we still have racial issues to solve. (On the latter: How could you read the newspaper and think otherwise?)

Just this week, a Little Rock School Board election seemed likely to be marked by racially polarized voting. For historic irony, you can't beat the support of descendants of 1957's “limousine liberals” for a candidate who would restore the old status quo — a white board majority. They are well-meaning people. But they tend to share the earlier generation's blindness to the fact that the business community is no less a special interest than the teachers union or the NAACP.

Time doesn't end today, however. And it is unfair to ignore progress. Universal education and equal access to the best Little Rock public schools are law and practice today, a far cry from 1957 Arkansas. Though students remain largely segregated socially, this is not exclusively true.

Unlike many other Southern cities, Little Rock schools have retained a substantial white enrollment. My own children graduated from Central High School and not once in a combined 25 years of schooling did I have reason to think there was a superior school option in Little Rock.

We have a black majority on the School Board. Whatever controversy has attended this fact, it has to count as progress. The black majority aggressively exercises its prerogative to speak for black children and educators. For this, they have been cruelly attacked by the monopoly daily, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (As most know, the newspaper's only relationship to the prize-winning Arkansas Gazette of 1957 is the appropriated name.)

The National Park Service's new visitor center at the Central High historic site illustrates that the 1957 crisis was but a moment in time, however significant, along a centuries-long and continuing struggle for equality. That powerful word, equality, held real meaning only to white men of property when the Constitution was written. And the word still rings hollow — to many black people, immigrants, the disabled, people of different sexual orientation and even for future oppressed classes unknown.

In the display, however, there is also hope. Individual witness can make a difference. Nine did in Little Rock.

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