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White students not enthralled

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RALPH BRODIE: His book 'Central in Our Lives' includes quotes from classmates about that year.
  • RALPH BRODIE: His book 'Central in Our Lives' includes quotes from classmates about that year.

For 50 years, the Little Rock Nine have gotten all the attention, and the Little Rock 2,000 seem to be tired of it.

A number of whites who were seniors in the fall of '57 were approached about interviews by the Times, and almost all of them declined. They not only didn't want to talk about the integration of Central High, most didn't want to talk about why they didn't want to talk. Several said they didn't plan to attend the September celebrations of the momentous event, but did plan to attend their class reunion next year. One woman who agreed to an interview, then reneged, said the ceremonies this year will be about integration, while the reunion will be about “our memories.”

A man who'll probably attend the '58 reunion said he threw away an invitation to the '57 ceremonies. “I'm not enthralled with '57.” After the first rush of excitement — the troops, Central students on national television — he didn't think much at the time about what came to be called “the crisis,” more about “camaraderie and puppy love.” As for the nine black students, “We pretty much ignored them and they pretty much ignored us.”

Members of the class of '58 opened up more to one of their own, Ralph Brodie, a Little Rock lawyer who was president of the student body that year. Brodie has long argued that Central students other than the Nine have not gotten the credit they deserve. He and a co-author, Marvin Schwartz, elaborate on that point in a book, “Central In Our Lives,” published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies of the Central Arkansas Library System just in time for this month's celebration. The book includes quotes from a large number of former Central students. Such as:

“Whenever I am asked to speak about my experience of being a student at LRCHS in 1957, the infamous year of desegregation, I become very anxious. I'm worried about questions such as: … Will their preconceived notions about Southern racism prevent them from hearing that the majority of white students were, in fact, the unsung heroes who helped keep the classroom situation calm enough for the school year to proceed? — Jane Emery Prather.”

“My boyfriend said, ‘Are you going in that school?' I said, ‘Yes, aren't you?' He said, ‘Hell, no, and I'm not going steady with any n**** lover.' With that, he jerked his high school ring from around my neck and walked away. I was shocked and brokenhearted. I could see there was going to be a price paid for making the decision to graduate at Central High. — Sherrie Smith Oldham.”

Brodie writes in the foreword that “Historians and the media have, perhaps naturally, focused on only two sides [of the Central High Crisis]: that of the Little Rock Nine and that of the problem students who opposed desegregation and bullied the Nine. The ‘third story' is the story about the other 1,850 students. It is a story that has been largely untold and, thus, almost completely overlooked. It is that story that we have tried to tell.”

Brodie asked to be allowed to speak at the anniversary ceremonies. As of this writing, it was uncertain whether the request would be granted.

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