A revolution in Little Rock that continues today

September 29, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- For many Americans of later generations who watched on television President Clinton's observance in Little Rock of the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High School, it may have seemed like just another clever photo opportunity for him to demonstrate his empathy for black Americans.

Unless these younger viewers also happened to see old film clips of the nine black students in 1957 being led into the school building by bayonet-bearing members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, and the glaring hostility of white students and townspeople around them, they might not have grasped the significance of the event.

But to those of us who lived through that era, white as well as black, the two scenes -- then and now -- were sharp and poignant reminders of how bad conditions were 40 years ago when those nine courageous students walked into the school, in the face of community hatred, to claim their legal rights.

Violence against blacks was not simply a threat but a reality across the South then. The lynching of 14-year-old Emmitt Till, the highway shooting of James Meredith in Mississippi, and attacks against such epic civil rights demonstrations as the Freedom Rides and the bloody march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma all gave vivid confirmation to the fact that racism was deeply embedded in the culture of the region.

White reporters who ventured into the Deep South in those days faced the same threats, often acted upon, as they sought to chronicle the region's bitter resistance to the extension of educational, voting and other rights to black Americans.

Although the Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 in Brown vs. Board of Education that the doctrine of separate-but-equal schools was unconstitutional, it was not until 1957 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower moved to put the force of the federal government behind it in the integration of Central High School. Even when he did, he made clear he was acting solely to enforce the law.

Taylor Branch, in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning study of the civil rights era, "Parting the Waters," has Eisenhower telling his attorney general, Herbert Brownell Jr.: "Well, if we have to do this, and I don't see any alternative, then let's apply the best military principles to it and see that the force we send there is strong enough that it will not be challenged, and will not result in any clash."

But if Eisenhower's motivation was less than noble, his action marked a critical turning point in the civil rights fight, with the federal government clearly coming down on the side of the rights of black Americans.

Thereafter, in the many and often brutal efforts by bitter whites to block the march of racial justice in the South, the Little Rock action was the benchmark.

When Gov. George C. Wallace made his famous stand in the schoolhouse door against the integration of the University of Alabama six years later, it was a sham performance of bravado that Mr. Wallace knew could not be sustained. President John F. Kennedy's nationalizing of the Alabama National Guard ended that resistance.

President Clinton used the 40th anniversary of Little Rock integration to punctuate his campaign to foster reconciliation between the races, at a time when many black Americans are dissatisfied with its pace.

The rolling back of affirmative action policies by court decision and the initiatives of officials like Gov. Pete Wilson in California have augmented unrest and concern among many blacks and white liberals.

Mr. Clinton also warned in his speech at Central High School of resegregation by practice and attitudes, long after the legal barriers have been swept away.

"Today, children of every race walk through the same door," he said, "but then they often walk down different halls. Not only in this school but across America, they sit in different classrooms, they eat at different tables, they even sit in different parts of the bleachers at the football game. ... Segregation is no longer the law, but too often separation is still the rule."

For younger Americans who have little or no memory of 1957, of the integration of Central High School and the violence of the time, it may seem that little progress has been made in race relations.

But in the 40 years since then, American society has undergone a revolution. That it still has a considerable distance to go does not take away from that fact.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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