Little Rock's 'gutless' moderates 

David Margolick's reporting on the famous Will Counts photo went much farther than the drama at Central High School and the homes of the key actors.

For instance, Margolick unearthed unpublished notes of Harold Isaacs of MIT, who came to study race relations here and couldn't find a single commercial establishment where he could drink a cup of coffee with a black man. Isaacs also uncovered the full story of the remarkable Davis Fitzhugh, an Augusta farmer so embarrassed by the photo of Elizabeth Eckford's harassment that he purchased an Arkansas Gazette ad to reprint the photo with the caption: "Study This Picture and Know Shame. When hatred is unleashed and bigotry finds a voice, God help us all."

Isaacs' son, Skip, found the box of unpublished notes from his father's Little Rock visit in a closet and allowed Margolick to use them. He writes that they revealed "self-lacerating" interviews that "read more like something out of Spoon River than Little Rock."

Isaacs was introduced into the higher echelon of Little Rock society by a World War II buddy, Frank Newell, an insurance man who took him to the private Little Rock Club, where "even on a Sunday morning, folks were drowning their shame in drink." Writes Margolick:

"Faubus unleashed the idiots," lamented Harry Ashmore, the editor of the Gazette who, as Isaacs put it, "stand[s] out like a monument in Little Rock, where nobody stands very high." Publicly, the city's most respectable figures conspicuously agonized; "handwringers and head-holders," Isaacs called them. But with the livelihoods of many of them dependent upon the bigots — they could always take their business to Memphis — they felt paralyzed. All felt too timid to speak out, except in their cups at the Little Rock Club to Harold Isaacs, a Jew, who, had he lived in town, would not have been allowed to join.

"If you find any people with any decent convictions in this town, you'll find that they are also gutless. Gutless! Gutless!" a Joseph Cotten-like lawyer named Downey told him. A "half-crocked" businessman kept repeating the lyrics from "South Pacific" — "you've got to be taught, to hate and fear" — while his wife tried repeatedly to shush him up. "Compulsive talking" was a leitmotif, Isaacs learned; if they gabbed enough, people seemed to feel, maybe they could wiggle out of their predicament. Officially, Isaacs got only a few minutes with Faubus, but two hours later the governor was still yakking as Isaacs edged his way to the door. " 'Moderation' in Little Rock seemed to cover everything from a rather weary and non-virulent pro-segregation to a timid and covert pro-integration," Isaacs wrote. "It was not a banner to rally an army. It was rather a ragged shelter under which all sorts of people could huddle in the storm while doing nothing." Newell gave him the local definition of moderate: saying "Negro" rather than "nigger."

Isaacs did not limit his interviews to the "moderates." The lawyer for the segregationist Mothers League, 38-year-old Griffin Smith [father of the executive editor of today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette], vouchsafed that the restaurant in the Hotel Marion, Little Rock's finest, wouldn't serve blacks in his lifetime.

+++

Smith was no prophet. He died years after the hotel was demolished in 1980, but not before civil rights laws had prohibited denial of service at the hotel on account of race.

"There are only nine heroes in Little Rock," Isaacs wrote at the end of his notes. "It's a war of nerves, and the nerves are the nerves of the nine youngsters, sweating it out day after day inside Central High School. On their nerves, the whole issue hangs, and the issue is a great one."

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