You Can’t Unring That Bell 

 I saw Richard Nixon chopper off the South Lawn of the White House for the last time in 1974.

I saw Bill Clinton in 1993 nudge Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat toward one another in a nerve-wracking moment that produced a fateful handshake under a blazing September sun as hundreds, watching, held their breath.

I've seen up close some of the world's most powerful leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Hosni Mubarak and Tony Blair.

I went to the Persian Gulf when the war machines were rumbling and Saddam Hussein was still fooling himself.

Still, no brush with history has meant to me what my affair with Little Rock Central High has in import and influence. It is that, you know — an affair, four decades long — beginning in the days after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ever curious, I asked my parents what all the grown-ups had been buzzing about. There had been happy, congratulatory, celebratory phone calls and visits, and I knew something was up.

My mother pulled an old cardboard shirt box from beneath the bed. It contained several yellowed tear sheets from the Arkansas Gazette. She explained that the adults were excited about something called “integration,” which, she carefully explained, had involved years of struggle, hope and sacrifice. All of which, she apparently surmised, an 11-year-old could best grasp in the context of what had happened, seven years previous, at Central High.

I knew the beautiful behemoth on sight. On rare occasions when errands required a trip in the direction of Park Street, I would gaze in awe upon the grand, imposing edifice. It was the biggest and most magnificent structure I had ever seen. I couldn't imagine how students didn't get lost. I used to ask if I would be going there when I reached high-school age. My parents said maybe. I remember feeling, at once, excited and scared to death.

This was before I had learned about the 1957 crisis. Before I had seen the picture of Elizabeth Eckford and those frothing mouths behind her, shouting only the devil knows what. And all because she was, to use the term of the times, a Negro?

Whenever I pored over the old news stories, I would stare at Elizabeth's face, as if staring would bring the scene to life. I wanted so badly to ask her: “Weren't you terrified? Why didn't you run? What made you so brave? Will that happen to me if I go to Central?”

My obsession with Little Rock Central took root that summer of '64 and has yet to diminish.

Four years later, I found myself mounting the long steps that frame the front portico as an entering sophomore. Central had become my school.

My three years there included some moments of racial tension and flare-ups, but the ghosts of the racists who had taunted, harassed and, occasionally, assaulted the nine black pioneers a decade earlier were, for the most part, gone. No rabid mob outside, no armed National Guard, no international media presence, no special cars or chaperones to ferry the hundreds of black students to and fro, no country-boy governor taking a loser's stand against the United States government.

Our parents did not form a support group, didn't huddle at the NAACP president's house, weren't awakened by burning crosses on their lawn and had no special warnings for us. The country had changed, Little Rock had changed and Central High had changed. Our faith and confidence had changed, too. We were stronger.

Central recovered its original reputation as the most beautiful school in America — a massive and rambling house of learning. And learn we did.

At Central, my love of journalism strengthened from cement to concrete and my life's mission was set. I wanted to find and tell truth. As a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat, this mission took me to a news conference where Orval Faubus was announcing a political comeback. He wanted, again, to be governor of Arkansas. I wanted to make sure he saw me — a black reporter — and went there cruising for a fight. Let him say one disparaging thing to me. It's a new day.

To my surprise, not only was Faubus not hostile, he was pleasant and polite. How could that be if he hated my blackness? And, if he didn't hate my blackness, how could he have done what he did to Arkansas, to the Little Rock Nine and to history?

L.C. Bates, the intrepid editor of the Arkansas State Press newspaper during the Central High crisis, put Faubus in perspective for me. “He was not a racist,” Bates told me one day in his home. “He was a dangerous opportunist.”

Over the years, as I came to know Faubus fairly well, I repeatedly sought a confession. Once, at a University of Arkansas conference on the 1957 ordeal, I flat-out asked him to admit that his heart hadn't been in his actions back then.

“Now, Miss Debbie,” he said, “Some things a man has a right to keep to himself.”

In 1987, I wrote and narrated a television report titled “The Return of the Little Rock Nine.” The 30th anniversary marked the first time all nine black students had returned to Central to commemorate the history they had made. In a poignant, iconic moment, the nine began ascending the front steps, just as they had 30 years earlier. A school bus rumbled by as if saluting its forerunner.

Recently, I ran into Ernest Green, the first black graduate of Little Rock Central High, on a Washington street. We chatted briefly and Ernie walked on, blending into the crowd.

No one stopped and turned to notice a man who had helped change the course of human events. He was just another Washingtonian to them, another man with business on his mind, another body to sidestep on the busy streets.

“There goes a piece of history,” I said to a stranger standing nearby.

“Who's he?” the stranger asked, accommodating me.

“That's Ernest Green,” I said proudly.

“Ernest Green?” he came back, looking slightly embarrassed. Obviously, the name didn't ring a bell.

“Little Rock Central High,” I replied.

“Ohhhhh, yeah,” the man said.

That name rang a bell. Of course it did.

Deborah Mathis, a nationally syndicated columnist and former White House correspondent for Gannett News Service, is the author of “Yet A Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel At Home.”



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