When Harsh Truths Call for Blunt Words
Eleven years ago today, John McCain received the Republican presidential nomination at the GOP convention in Minnesota. McCain began his acceptance speech with warm tributes to his wife, Cindy, his mother, Roberta, and both U.S. presidents named George Bush. Then McCain said this:
“And, finally, a word to Senator Obama and his supporters: We’ll go at it over the next two months -- you know that’s the nature of this business -- and there are big differences between us. But you have my respect and my admiration. Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans, and that's an association that means more to me than any other.”
I’m a uniter, not a divider, to borrow a line from the man in the Oval Office when McCain made that speech. Still, there are times in life when soothing words aren’t enough. Sometimes harsh language is in order, which was the case 62 years ago as the nation witnessed the unfolding drama at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Warning: That language is pretty salty.)
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On Sept. 4, 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, a Democrat, deployed the state’s National Guard outside Central High School. Bill Clinton was a schoolboy in Hot Springs, 55 miles away on the day a mob blocked the Little Rock school board’s plan to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court desegregation order.
Claiming he was trying to maintain the peace, but really trying to preserve Jim Crow at the point of a bayonet, the governor sent Guard units there to prevent nine fresh-faced African American students from breaching the halls of the city’s all-white high school. Privately, President Dwight Eisenhower hadn’t welcomed the Warren Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, but now Ike was confronted by a Southern demagogue flouting federal law.
The president didn’t react quickly. Perhaps he had trouble facing the fact that a fellow former U.S Army officer and World War II combat veteran (Faubus had fought in George Patton’s famed Third Army) could be so contemptuous of the United States government.
Yet before the month was out, Eisenhower took to the airwaves to denounce Faubus and announce that in order to prevent “mob rule” and “anarchy” he had federalized the Arkansas National Guard and augmented their ranks with 500 armed troops from the elite 101st Airborne Division. This was the famed unit Gen. Eisenhower had ordered to parachute behind German lines the night before D-Day in 1944. In 1957, their job was to escort the black students to their classrooms past white Americans who taunted and threatened them.
“They spoke as though our presence would corrupt the academic environment,” Ernest G. Green, the first of the nine black students to graduate from Central High, said at a 40th anniversary commemoration of the event. “They did not really know us. If they had, they would have known our parents were honest and hard-working people.”
“The Little Rock Nine were turned away, but they did not turn back,” added Bill Clinton, who in the ensuing four decades had grown from an 11-year-old Arkansan to president of the United States, with several terms in Orval Faubus’ old job in between. “They climbed these steps, went through this door and moved our nation, and for that we must thank them.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story, not for the Little Rock students, nor for the nation. The young black students were taunted and hazed throughout the school year, an ordeal that was especially difficult for one of the nine, a girl named Elizabeth Eckford.
Her face was transmitted to the world in a famous photograph by Arkansas Democrat Will Counts. The picture also captured part of the howling white mob, including another 15-year-old girl, Hazel Bryan, whose face was contorted in hate as she shouted racial epithets at Elizabeth. It wasn’t an easy image for white America to digest, although there was more to each girl’s life than the photo revealed. For one thing, Hazel had a difficult childhood in a violent household, as we would learn later from David Margolick, who wrote a searing Vanity Fair article on the 50th anniversary of the event. Elizabeth Eckford’s life was complicated in other ways. “The painfully shy 15-year-old daughter of a hyper-protective mother reluctant to challenge age-old racial mores, she was the unlikeliest trailblazer of all,” Margolick wrote. “But as dramatic as the moment was, it really mattered only because Elizabeth wandered into the path of Will Counts's camera.”
Elizabeth and Hazel would form an unlikely friendship as adults, a rapprochement that flamed and then fizzled. Their story was also chronicled in Margolick’s 2011 book, “Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.”
The entire saga of Little Rock in 1957 is worth knowing about and remembering because it still informs our politics and national attitudes. White voters who today resent affirmative action and identity politics -- and chafe at being called racists because of their voting booth choices -- don’t necessarily hold unreasonable policy views. But they would do well to remember that many of the people who fought for civil rights are still alive, and some of their memories are etched in their psyches forever. Conversely, those who liberally toss about the term “white supremacist” today would do well to learn what that truly looked like in an earlier time.
Every American plays a part in this tale, in large ways or small. The members of the press can be a source of enlightenment or not, as they choose. Celebrities and artists, too. Will Counts trained a spotlight on the ugliness of racism. Louis Armstrong, described by Margolick as
“perpetually sunny” and “uncontroversial,” was disgusted by what unfolded in Arkansas that fateful September and said so. Threatening to cancel a State Department-sponsored goodwill tour to the Soviet Union, Satchmo declared that Eisenhower had “no guts” and that the U.S. government could go to hell. While talking with reporters, Armstrong also called Faubus a “no-good motherfucker," which in those more genteel days showed up in the newspapers as "uneducated plowboy.”
Eisenhower had plenty of guts, but even good men sometimes need a metaphorical kick in the fanny. “When I see on television and read about a crowd in Arkansas spitting on a little colored girl, I think I have a right to get sore” is how Louie Armstrong explained his outburst. He was right, and six decades later, his words are a reminder that sometimes in life Americans must speak their minds. It’s more than a right; occasionally it’s an obligation.