Rajendra Maharaj is now directing "It Happened in Little Rock," a musical and multimedia presentation at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock. In 2005, in preparation for the show, he interviewed me about the Little Rock Crisis of 1957 and race relations in general. Here are some of the questions he posed and my responses to them:
Of all the cities in the South, why do you think Little Rock and Central High School were the focus of national and international attention?
Just our bad luck, I guess. The Little Rock Nine's seeking simple justice happened to coincide with the presence of a canny opportunist in the Governor's Mansion who realized that, if he played his race cards right, he could win a practically unlimited lease on the governor's office. He did and he did.
Little Rock, being a capital of a state largely in the Upper South, might seem an unlikely spot for a showdown over a racial issue that would make American constitutional history, but there is no end to the mischief that can be produced by a combination of raw hate and manipulative politics.
Do you believe many Americans still see the South as a backward place in regards to race relations? If so, why?
Not as many as used to. But the impression was understandable. The South was largely co-extensive with the Slave Power in American history, and then with the realm of Jim Crow. Only in recent times do many Americans see race relations in the South as not so different from race relations elsewhere. That's in large part a function of the Americanization of the South and, of late, the Southernization of America.
In some ways, race relations may be better among black and white Southerners than elsewhere because we have some ethnic traits in common as Southerners; we speak the same language, read the same Bible, share the same manners. We may know each other as people rather than as abstractions. Sometimes. But not always, certainly not as we become resegregated in the Northern big-city fashion.
When you think about the Little Rock Nine, the black students at the center of the crisis, students, what emotions or images come to your mind?
Elizabeth Eckford's walking stoically past the howling mob the very image of human dignity. Orval Faubus's transparent demagoguery. The nationally televised address of Dwight Eisenhower, the personification of an almost naive American decency. Yet he proved naive like a fox when the time of testing came. Harry Ashmore and J.N. Heiskel of the Arkansas Gazette, who did us proud by standing for law and order. Woodrow Wilson Mann, the mayor of Little Rock who was swept away by the crisis and never really recovered. His was a sad story that has yet to be fully honored. The courage of the Little Rock Nine and Daisy and L.C. Bates, who became the Little Rock Nine's other parents during the Crisis.
So much political and rhetorical talent was wasted in a bad cause devoted to keeping other folks down. The race issue, the curse of the South, was grist for talented demagogues. How easily the hatred of the rich so characteristic of the populist mentality becomes hatred, period, and is directed against the nearest scapegoat. Later, when I would read Richard Hofstadter on the populists, his then unorthodox suspicions of populism made perfect sense to me. I'd seen his theory play out in the Little Rock Crisis and in Southern politics in general although there were rare exceptions to the vicious rule that populism soon enough becomes racism. Like the Longs in Louisiana.
Where does racism come from?
I remember as a teenager sitting in our old Chevy outside my father's shop on Texas Avenue in Shreveport, La., on a Saturday in August. In the unbearable heat of the South before air-conditioning or integrated schools. I hated spending my Saturdays working in the store, not that I did much work, and was feeling much put-upon. Poor adolescent me.
And while I was simmering, along came a great big black woman. Her dress was slovenly, she was talking loudly, and I could see that her teeth were in awful shape, and she spewed spittle as she spoke. I just stared at her and hated, hated, hated, hated her. Hated them all.
All my own dissatisfactions with myself and where I was just boiled over inside, and I mentally unloaded on her. That's my theory of where racism comes from rage within at one's own unhappiness or powerlessness that we turn outward, dehumanizing others.
I don't know how long I felt that emotion, a minute or an afternoon, but I do recall looking back afterward, amazed at the strength of my visceral hatred, and being stunned by its power. How could I have felt that way? What if Henry Johnson had been standing there on the sidewalk my father's faithful apprentice and my own mentor in all ways Southern, a black man who would be with the family for most of his and my father's and mother's life. Would I have let myself go inwardly that way? I certainly would never have done it outwardly. I did know better than that.
I was not so much ashamed of my feeling that way as fascinated by it. Where had it come from? For an orgiastic moment, I had felt nothing but sheer disgust, sheer fear of Them. I've felt and marveled at that same wave of emotion on the part of others directed at their own Them. I would later feel it at Klan rallies, and in Leni Riefenstahl's film of the Nuremberg Rallies ("The Triumph of the Will") and at national political conventions ("They are the powerful! We are the People!").
Wherever and whenever the Mob Spirit takes over, that's when you can feel people's dissatisfactions with themselves boiling over as they give themselves permission to hate. It's so much easier to hate en masse, when individual conscience or even individual awareness dissipates, and we become We and begin to seethe against a Them.
Is America a racist country?
Oh, come on. Is Germany? Is Japan? Is France? Is India? Honduras? The line between good and evil runs not between countries, as Solzhenitsyn said, but within each heart. And the line shifts.
There is a good inclination in the human heart, too. Let me tell you about the man in khaki who came into the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial to put his daughter's engagement announcement in the paper the day after we inadvertently had run a black bride's engagement announcement alongside all the white brides. It was the talk of the town. Those were the days of Colored News, when the Society section was reserved for whites. "I came in to put my daughter's announcement in the paper," he said. "If y'all want to run it next to a Negro girl's, that's all right with us." He plunked down the envelope and left, having taken his stand. Every time you tell yourself people are no damned good, they'll up and surprise you.
By the way, that technically black bride she was so light-complected you couldn't tell by the picture, which is how her picture wound up in the Society section back then is now a justice of the Arkansas Court of Appeals. I know we've got a long way to go, but we've come a long way, too.
Have you been affected professionally or personally by The Crisis?
Like the rest of the race issue, it's been great editorial fodder a classic morality tale with a clear message. You don't get many issues like that. What a privilege and opportunity it's been to write about it all these years, despite its volatility. That others didn't see the evil there only made one feel part of We Happy Few. In that respect, it's like writing about the abortion issue now. For it seems just as clear to me now that, if destroying a perfectly healthy child in the womb isn't wrong, then nothing is wrong.
Is there anything that you know now that, had you known it in the 1950s, would have changed your view or behavior during The Crisis?
If I could run the past by like a movie, I'm sure there are many scenes I'd rewrite in order to do better the way I edit our editorials in my mind when I re-read them in the paper the next morning, wishing I had changed a comma here or added a word there or groaning at a typo that escaped us.
I wish I had appreciated the ethnic component in what we called the Race Issue back then. The black-white difference, I've come to believe, is more like the one between Anglos and Hispanics, Jews and Irish, than between just different colored chess pieces, black and white, that are the same inside, different only in outward color.
I wish I had had a greater appreciation of the distinctive cultures involved, of the language, the music, the black church. If I had thought about racial relations in ethnic terms, I might have made more sense.
Do you hold any anger professionally or personally because of The Crisis?
Oh, yes. Against all those who blackened Arkansas's and the South's and even America's name at the time. Even in his old age, I was never able to shake Orval Faubus' hand or show him anything but coldness. When we were together, I felt uncomfortable, and tried to get on the other side of the room, so I wouldn't be collateral damage when the lightning struck. Orval Faubus was no racist; he was just playing us for his own purposes, and very well. That I have trouble forgiving.
What do you know for sure about tolerance in America?
Very little. We're a fickle species. I strongly suspect tolerance grows in good times, contracts in hard times. And that we'll do things together, as a mob, or in the sway of groupthink, that we could never justify to our individual consciences.
What is your dream for America in regards to race relations?
What Dr. King dreamed: that we judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Maybe that's why I'm so opposed to racial preferences, aka Affirmative Action. I have to control myself when I'm told we need a black columnist or a woman writer on the editorial page for no better reason than that they're black or a woman. As if we run Thomas Sowell or Kathleen Parker because of their race or sex. I'm not much for Identity Politics. That whole approach is an insult to the human ability to see ourselves in others. As if dead white males like Shakespeare or Sophocles couldn't understand the human condition regardless of the race, creed, etc., of the human beings they wrote about.