David Copperfield said, in a famous opening sentence, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
The whites who were students at Central High in 1957 may feel the same way. For 50 years, it's seemed they weren't the heroes of their own lives. The pages of Ralph Brodie's book are intended to show otherwise.
Brodie, a Little Rock tax lawyer, was president of the student body at Central in the '57-‘58 school year, and just about ever since, he's argued that the white students — the well-behaved vast majority of them, some 1,850 strong — have never gotten the credit they deserve. (The nine black students who integrated Central have been the subjects of continuous and deserved tribute.) Finally, in the golden anniversary year of The Crisis, Brodie has set out to correct the record himself, with the help of a professional co-author, Marvin Schwartz.
“Central in Our Lives: Voices from Little Rock Central High School 1957-58” is published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies of the Central Arkansas Library System. It sells for $24.95 paperback, $33.95 hardback. The book contains excerpts from interviews with more than a hundred former Central students, such as:
“My mother was watching national television coverage from her home in west Little Rock. The reporter was making it sound like a riot was happening. Mother called the school to advise me to leave immediately for my own safety. At the same time, I was watching the same commotion out my window at 13th and Park across from Central, and nothing was happening.” — Pat New Graves, Class of 1958.
“I remember a few of the white students being on the sidewalk outside the school shouting up to us in the windows, ‘Come on out. You don't want to go to school with n****s.' I did not come out. I did not want to be out there in the mob.” — Avay Gray Jaynes, Class of 1960. (Those outside students probably weren't shouting “n asterisk asterisk asterisk asterisk s,” but the book follows the current fashion of never spelling out what has come to be called “the n-word.”)
None of the interviewees here was in that small group of troublemakers at Central, and only one of them, a girl, is even named in the book. It would be interesting, if perhaps distasteful, to learn what the little band of bigots thinks now. That's just about the only stone left unturned in this avalanche of commemoration.
“Central in Our Lives” is slow going for anyone who wasn't at Central at the time; most readers will have to vault large chunks of it to reach the end. Still, it was worth doing, one more log for the historical fire.
At the end, your view of the students of Central High is likely to be what it was when you started. They were neither villainous nor heroic, less interested in the great events around them than in those things that teenagers are always interested in, but they made it through a tense situation without embarrassing themselves. They were much like your own graduating class, except that nine strangers showed up at their school. That's why their class is remembered, and yours is not.