LITTLE ROCK - It proved an education not just for his students but for me when Adam Green, associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, brought his class to town for an on-site study of the Little Rock Crisis of 1957.
Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., was the focus of more than a political and constitutional crisis in 1957. It was also a test of conscience. How we see it now still is. And who better to serve as a guide to all the forces that collided here than the son of Ernest Green, one of the original Little Rock Nine who integrated the school?
The students began their colloquium early on a Friday morning here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where they met to hear from five local reporters who had covered the Crisis first-hand.
As one of the students told me as the two-hour seminar was breaking up and the group was headed for Central High, now an official historic site, hearing from those on the scene in '57 was so different from reading about the crisis in the history books. For me, too, I assured her. There's always something new to learn about the old, especially from eyewitnesses.
Each person sees with different eyes, and brings a different set of sensibilities to events. And so does each generation. Which may be why history so often says more about the time in which it was written than the time it purports to describe.
It takes a rare sensibility to transport oneself into the past, and see it as those who lived it did. Giambattista Vico, the early 18th-century philosopher/historiographer, called that rare talent fantasia, or overwhelming, all-absorbing imagination. For it's not easy to avoid the presentness that reduces history to an exercise in current cultural or ideological fashion. Our own time can be a prison, shutting us out of the others.
The most revealing comment of the morning's discussion came from Ernie Dumas, who'd joined the old Arkansas Gazette as a political reporter shortly after 1957. He recalled a conversation with Orval Faubus after the old boy had been elected to his third term as governor in 1958, largely as a result of the popularity he'd reaped from his defiant stand against the federal government the year before.
It seems the triumphant Faubus had taken him aside - along with Roy Reed, a Gazette reporter who years later would write a detailed biography of Faubus - to explain what a really fine, progressive governor he'd been. He'd been the most liberal governor in the South, Orval Faubus told them. Despite the bad press that he and Arkansas were getting (and would continue to get) because of his defense of racial segregation.