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A strange turn for LR crisis book 

Revisionist history lacks supporting facts.

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Turn Away Thy Son – Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation.
By Elizabeth Jacoway, Free Press, hard cover, $30.

By Garrick Feldman

The cover of Elizabeth Jacoway’s book on the Central High School desegregation crisis reproduces one of the most famous photos of the civil rights era. Taken by Arkansas Democrat photographer Will Counts (who should have won the Pulitzer Prize, along with the Gazette’s Pulitzers that were awarded for public service and editorial writing), it shows Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, surrounded by angry whites outside the school, including a white teen-ager named Hazel Bryan screaming at the black student as if she’d been caught trespassing at a private club rather than a publicly funded high school.

“Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation” has a striking cover, with red and gold on the bottom and the black-and-white photo on top, but the awkwardly titled book is not what it seems. “Turn Away Thy Son” — the title is taken from a passage in Deuteronomy warning against intermarriage (miscegenation is one of the author’s themes) — appears at first to be a sympathetic account of the Little Rock Nine, which it is in parts. But the book takes a strange turn when it paints two of the heroes of those terrible times — President Eisenhower and Gazette editor Harry Ashmore — as no better than Gov. Faubus (whose opportunism looks even worse 50 years later) or the rabble-rouser Jim Johnson or cretinous racists like Wesley Pruden and Amis Guthridge.

When an historian goes after two 20th century giants — Eisenhower, a great military leader and a near-great president whom she criticizes for “reverting to a military mentality” when he sent the troops into Little Rock, and Ashmore, a brilliant editor whose courageous editorials did much to restore Arkansas’s reputation around the country and the world, but whom she dismisses as an elitist — then she’d better have the facts on her side if she hopes to persuade readers that she has uncovered new information that would change history’s judgment about the crisis and these men.

Although she has dug into Justice Department and other official archives and interviewed many of the participants, her attempts at revisionist history leave you shaking your head: Why try to paint a more balanced picture of Faubus, when there’s overwhelming evidence that he was an opportunist and a demagogue?

Eisenhower and Ashmore had him figured out quickly — Ashmore as soon as his former friend jumped over to the segregationist side as the crisis unfolded, Eisenhower after his meeting with Faubus at Newport, R.I., and Faubus retreated from his promise to obey the court orders and let Central integrate.

Jacoway thinks Ashmore conspired with Faubus’ left-leaning opponents — his publisher Hugh Patterson, Henry Woods, Sid McMath and other liberal suspects — and blamed the crisis on the governor when there was plenty of blame to go around. Well, sure, the usual bad guys make their entrance — racist preachers, spineless legislators, hysterical parents, frightened businessmen —and then the Women’s Emergency Committee to Save Our Schools was formed and helped reopen the schools.

But until reason prevailed, Ashmore and the Gazette stood up for the rule of law and decency. His editorials have stood the test of time, even if Jacoway doesn’t think much of them. “The Crisis Mr. Faubus Made” is probably the best editorial published in an Arkansas newspaper: “Thus the issue is no longer segregation and integration. The question has now become the supremacy of the government of the United States in all matters of law.”

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