WASHINGTON -- There was a revealing juxtaposition of events here the other day. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund held a dinner honoring the nine people who integrated Central High School in Little Rock 40 years ago. The same day President Clinton met with the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss steps that might be taken to deal with race problems facing the nation today.
The NAACP event was a reminder of an extraordinary time when young black people showed stunning courage in their quest for equal opportunity. The White House meeting was a reminder that even after four decades there are miles to go before race issues in our society will have been resolved.
Anyone who witnessed it must have vivid memories of ''the Little Rock nine'' passing through lines of screaming whites trying to prevent their enrollment at Central. The mob took quasi-official encouragement from the decision of Gov. Orval Faubus to call out the National Guard to maintain order -- but most decidedly not to help the young students achieve their goal. Their enrollment wasn't assured until President Dwight D. Eisenhower nationalized the guard and sent in regular Army troops after more than two weeks of ugly protests.
The young students' problems as the only blacks in that high school were by no means resolved. But they showed the tenacity and grit to keep to their commitment, and all nine eventually went on to graduate and to receive college educations.
But the Little Rock story is 40 years old, too distant a piece of history to stir first-hand memories among most Americans. The same holds for many of the critical turning points of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and the 1960s -- including the march on Washington in 1963 and the approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that guaranteed equal access to public accommodations and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made black voters an influential force in American politics.
Most Americans are simply too young to know first-hand why there had to be a civil-rights movement in the first place. They have no experience with whites-only lunch counters and hotels and schools and voting booths. And, because they lack that context, many of them are angry about what they see as too much help being given to minorities by the federal government.
A black backlash
This white reaction has caused a backlash of similar anger among African Americans and, to a lesser extent, members of other minority groups who see themselves as being victimized in every situation.
The result is a Democratic president facing a revival of racial resentment -- and, in some cases, blatant racism -- that has become a significant factor in national politics.
According to Rep. Maxine Waters, chair of the Black Caucus, the president ''led us into a discussion'' about steps that might be taken without committing himself to a specific agenda. A White House staff task force is supposed to be coming up with a plan that may include appointment of a special commission on race relations or a White House conference or both. The one certain element is President Clinton's favorite approach to such things, a series of speeches, the first of which he will deliver next month at the University of San Diego.
Mr. Clinton has shown that he is sensitive to these currents in our politics -- and not only in a positive way. In his first campaign for the White House in 1992, his political schedulers arranged his itineraries so that major events in the black community rarely fell in the hours when they would be the dominant story on the national television networks that night. And there was clearly an element of appealing to the white backlash in the emphasis candidate Clinton placed on welfare reform during that same campaign.
This doesn't suggest any latent racism in the president. On the contrary, African-American leaders give him high marks for the rapport he has established with their community. But 40 years after those children walked into Central High School, there are still miles to go.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 5/26/97