Fifty years ago Sunday, nine black teenagers integrated Little Rock’s Central High School under the armed guard an elite U.S. military unit. Little Rock Nine member Jefferson Thomas’ spare recollection is a reminder that movements are made of countless acts of individual courage and grace:
Half a century later, sluggish desegregation and rapid resegregation have diluted the legacy of the Little Rock Nine, and the injustice of separate and unequal education persists. Segregation and education are every bit as urgent moral issues now as they were 50 years ago, but the clearly justice-centered approach and energy have dwindled in the “post-Civil Rights era.”
From the vantage point of half a century, it seems an absurd drama. You shake your head at the fatuity of the adults in the old news footage, their mouths twisted, fists clenched, eyes alight, and you marvel that they were driven to such a fury, such a madness, by so innocuous an event. You wonder what in the world they could have been thinking.
But of course, that’s an easy one. They were thinking they were right.
We always expect evil to look different, obvious. We are always anticipating the pointed ears and the pitchfork, the black stovepipe hat and the Snidely Whiplash mustache. The truth, however, is that evil is rather banal. You might pass it five times a day and never recognize it for what it is.
The pale men and women who took to the streets of Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 would have been, in the overwhelming majority, Christian people. They paid their taxes. They helped the poor. They visited the sick. They held hands over hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance. They were decent folks, except they had this evil belief that people with dark skin were of a savage, yet simultaneously child-like, lower order and that if anyone sought to mix pale and dark, pale must resist by any means necessary.
If you had suggested to them that this was wrong, they would looked at you askance, maybe even laughed, and wondered what was wrong with you. Because they knew they were right, knew it in their bones, knew it in their Bibles, knew it with certitude, knew it beyond all question.
Five decades later, there is a starkness, a black and white purity, to the issues argued those tense days in Little Rock streets: inclusion versus exclusion. It is enough to make one nostalgic. After all, after affirmative action, after busing, after O.J., after Cosby, after Imus, there is little starkness, much less purity, to the conflict between pale and dark. All is complexity, all is gray.
Or maybe that’s just the self-deluding conceit of a generation that is pleased to think of itself as enlightened beyond history, pleased to look back on past events and tsk tsk the behavior of the poor, benighted souls who lived through them.
Yet in Jena, La., six American children with dark skin were charged with attempted murder after jumping a pale child whose injuries amounted to a black eye and a concussion.
In Tulia, Tex., 38 mostly dark-skinned people were convicted of drug dealing on the perjured testimony of a pale cop known to describe dark people with a racial slur.
In Paris, Tex., a dark-skinned girl who shoved a teacher’s aide was given seven years by a judge who had earlier given probation to a pale-skinned arsonist.
All this not in 1957, but now.
Yet, it has become common for some pale Americans to deny that these and other inequities have anything to do with skin tone. That’s an absurdity we left in the ’50s, they say. We are beyond that. There are no pale Americans and dark Americans. There are only Americans. They wish dark Americans would understand this and get over it already.
And it’s the darnedest thing. If you suggest that they are wrong, they will look at you askance, maybe even laugh, and wonder what is wrong with you. Because they know they’re right, know it in their bones, know it in their Bibles, know it with a certitude.
Know it beyond all question.