Fifty years ago today, federal troops escorted nine black students, through an angry mob, into little Rock's Central High School. Shelby Steele looks back:
On this 50th anniversary of Eisenhower's troop deployment, the significance of the Little Rock crisis--its place in history--is much clearer. I believe it was the beginning of a profoundly different America. . . .
the deeper historical importance of the Little Rock crisis follows from the simple fact that it was televised. It was, in fact, the first time that this still fledgling medium was able to make America into a community by rendering up a riveting real-life drama for the country to watch. Compelling personalities emerged, like the despicable and erratic Gov. Faubus, who kept flaunting federal authority like a little potentate. There was Eisenhower himself, whose grandfatherly patience with Faubus seemed to belie a sympathy with this racist's need to hold on to a fading authority. And there was the daily gauntlet that the black students were made to walk--innocence face to face with evil. And, finally, there was great suspense. How would it all end? Would there by a military clash, another little civil war between North and South?
So Americans watched by the millions and, in this watching, saw something that would change the country fundamentally. Every day for weeks they saw white people so consumed with racial hatred that they looked bestial and subhuman. When white racism was a confident power, it could look like propriety itself, like good manners. But here, in its insecurity, it was grotesque and shocking. Worse, it was there for the entire world to see, and so it broke through the national denial. The Little Rock crisis revealed the evil at the core of segregation, and it launched the stigmatization of white Americans as racists that persists to this day. After Little Rock whites stood permanently accused. They would have to prove a negative--that they were not racist--in order to claim decency. And this need to forever beg one's innocence is the very essence of white guilt.
More from Angela Onwuachi.
UPDATE: The Washington Post reports on the 50th anniversary commemoration.
the brief appearances by the nine captivated the crowd. They are an accomplished group, earning numerous bachelor's and master's degrees, though generally heavier and grayer. Two of them used wheelchairs.
On the podium, they thanked their parents and advised youngsters to be diligent. If they did recall anything for the crowd about those turbulent times, it did not involve being spit on, or insulted or physically threatened -- as if the meanness of those days had been cleansed in memory. They recalled instead the humor and determination.