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.
To document his claim, this undisputed champion of Arkansas politics (at least till Bill Clinton came along) ran through the litany of social and economic programs he'd supported. Just as he would regularly do every two years and gubernatorial election thereafter. That's when Roy Reed asked him the question that History would then and forever ask: "But what about '57?"
Orval Faubus explained that he was no racist. No serious observer of Arkansas politics ever thought he was; he was much too intelligent for that. No, he was something worse: an opportunist who exploited the racism of others in order to retain political power. He'd done what he'd done, he explained that day, to keep worse types at bay.
Any politician tempted to exploit race will always find such an excuse. Call it the Willie Stark Theory in honor of the hero - well, the protagonist - of "All the King's Men." It can be summed up as: Better to do some evil than invite a greater one.
Or as Willie would put it, good itself is never pure but inseparable from evil, for evil is what good must be made out of. The great leader has to make compromises to further some greater good, like his own precious career. (See the indelible signature of J. William Fulbright on the infamous Southern Manifesto.)
But this rationalization fails the test not only of idealism but practical politics. For we'll never know what would have happened if Orval Faubus had decided to champion the law of the land, not to mention the brotherhood of man, instead of his own indispensability.
Who knows, he might have been able to rally the better angels of our nature and make Arkansas a shining light of racial amity - instead of making Little Rock a worldwide synonym for race hatred. It was a reputation the people of this state and city never deserved. Only now, half a century later, has that image finally faded. It would take a succession of real reformers in the Governor's Mansion, like Winthrop Rockefeller and Mike Huckabee, to remove the stain.
But what's a political leader, or any mortal, to do when faced with a choice between an abstract ideal and real, practical gain? The choice is always so complicated, or appears to be.
Which is the path of wisdom between conflicting counsels? The answer is the same as it has been since Job's time: "And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil, that is understanding."
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