OPENING DOORS AND MINDS
SEPTEMBER 25, 1997
Forty years ago, nine students faced jeering crowds as they walked through the doors of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Clinton welcomed the "Little Rock Nine" through those same doors to commemorate the anniversary of school desegregation. After a background report by Tom Bearden, journalist Haynes Johnson, Ohio State Treasurer Kenneth Blackwell and historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and Roger Wilkins reflect on this historic event in race relations.
JIM LEHRER: Now, five views of Little Rock, those of NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist/author Haynes Johnson, and of Roger Wilkins, history professor at George Mason University, and Kenneth Blackwell, the state treasurer of Ohio, former ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights during the Bush administration. Roger Wilkins, what did Little Rock mean to you when it happened 40 years ago?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
Online Forum: Ask the President's race advisory board about school desegregation.
September 25, 1997
A backgrounder on school desegregation in Little Rock.
August 18, 1997
Does California's ban on affirmative action hurt diversity?
July 3, 1997:
The President's advisory panel answer questions on the national race initiative.
February 18, 1997:
In 1960, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges Hall became the first African American child to desegregate an elementary school.
June 12, 1996:
Scores of church burnings are symptomatic of a larger racial problem in the U.S.- growing segregation.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of race relations.
Central High School's Homepage.
ROGER WILKINS, Historian: Well, some people are nostalgic about segregation. Some black people say, well, it was when we had businesses and when we had black baseball. It was also a time of fear. As a Northerner I didn't want to go South because I was afraid to go South because segregation was kept in place by violence--official violence and terrorists. And segregation was really kind of a hogging. The white folks would hog all the good stuff and all the leftover stuff, all the non-power, all the raggedy stuff was left for black people. So what Little Rock meant for me was wheeling a reluctant president in on the side of the Constitution and of black citizens and white citizens who wanted to enlarge justice. And it was also--I'll never forget--it was also total empathy with those nine kids. I was 25.
JIM LEHRER: Did you identify with them?
ROGER WILKINS: Oh, I could have hugged every day Ernie and Elizabeth Eckford--I mean, Ernie's now a friend of mine--I didn't know him then. And all of them--they were so brave, they faced the horror, such anger, you could just see those faces, that hatred, the spit, and I didn't know how they did it. I was ten years older than they, so that's what I meant.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what did it meant to you as a little white girl?
"I found myself passionately screaming at Eisenhower on the television set."
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think it really was the defining moment for a lot of us who were born too late for World War II, and this was "the" public conscious act of our whole generation. I mean, to look at those kids who were exactly the same age as I was at that time, I found myself passionately screaming at Eisenhower on the television set--I guess even then I was more passionate than rational--and I just couldn't understand why it took him so long to get those troops. And it was the first public time I'd ever yelled at a president, the first time I even thought about it. And it really became one of those moments I think when ordinary Americans had to take sides. There seemed to be the right side and the wrong side, and when those troops finally came in, I just remember sitting by that television scene glued to the notion that they were defending black Americans' right to equal treatment, and thereby making America a better place. I remember Minnie Jean Brown said she got goose pimples. I did too in watching it.
And I guess it really was the first of a series of confrontations that made the civil rights movement work, Birmingham, Selma, leading to Civil Rights Act of ‘64 and then the Voting Rights Act of ‘65 but also for those of us who were the 50's kids, it was that first activism that led to changing the whole way we looked at America, that led to our being involved with the civil rights movement and the environmental movement, the women's movement, believing that public action and a few brave kids could change the face of America. It was a great moment for those of us who wanted to change things in America.
JIM LEHRER: Kenneth Blackwell, a great moment for you personally?
KENNETH BLACKWELL, Ohio State Treasurer: I tell you, the personal integrity and personal display of courage by those nine young people was an inspiration to me, a nine-year-old at the time. My father believed that President Eisenhower, whether reluctantly or on a delayed basis, eventually did the right thing, and he understood that that was a major turn in the history of this country, where the personal liberty and the promise of the individual and the self-evident truth that all of us are human and have human dignity and have the right to pursue liberty, life, and happiness and have the Constitution and the President of the United States defend us, was a moment for rejoicing in our family, but I think it was the courage of those nine young students standing in the face of violence that made a difference.
JIM LEHRER: Do you remember specifically rejoicing as a nine year-old boy in Ohio?
The "Little Rock Nine" influenced youth across the country.
KENNETH BLACKWELL: Well, I remember looking at the pictures in Life and Look Magazine. My father--I can tell you I grew up in a housing project, and at the time we didn't have a television--and so I remember looking at the pictures and listening to the events unfold on radio, but it was really the pride of my parents and an underscoring by them of this notion that the human condition isn't a spectator sport; that if we want to make America great and we want to make it true to his promise, then we have to take the risk of being involved in the struggle for freedom. That was underscored for me as a nine year-old.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, did you identify with what President Clinton said today, that until Little Rock the problems of the blacks for white people were mostly background music?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Yes, it was that way, and I had just come to Washington as a young reporter, Jim, when Little Rock happened. I'd been here five weeks, and the background, as he said, the music of the day was race. And it was building. And this sense--you had the desegregation ruling, you had the Southern manifesto, Rosa Parks stands up and refuses to go to the back of the bus, Martin Luther King begins to lead the bus boycott, but not until Little Rock. And watching those pictures tonight I have to tell you, Roger said he wanted to hug the people and Doris said--seeing it again in that black and white footage we were all a part of it, and that's the first time where television, which has many problems, but it brought us into the home, and it was a connection I had--I remember feeling myself it was like being back in the Civil War period. A hundred years of history was about to be coming full--fruition. And from that moment on was inescapable--bloodshed led from movements and marches and tragedies and all that--but it really changed American history.
JIM LEHRER: And it began there?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think that was the crystallizing point because the cameras were there, No. 1, and the whole--
JIM LEHRER: So it involved everybody?
HAYNES JOHNSON: It involved the entire nation. Doris said she was screaming at the television set at 11 years old; you wanted to hug the children. I, myself, felt just watching it now, I reacted almost the way I did then watching it, just that sense of we're all there.
JIM LEHRER: As a simple matter of history, Michael, nothing--I changed that--there's no such thing as a simple matter of history.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Thank you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: As a matter of history, was it a major event?
Eisenhower: the reluctant champion of desegregation?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It was a major event in that people wondered after the Supreme Court said there shouldn't be any school desegregation how far the federal government would really go to enforce that order. And we now know it wasn't quite as visible at the time. Dwight Eisenhower did that in 1957 very reluctantly. He had an awful lot of qualms about integration in general, school desegregation, wondered how much the government should be involved. He was very pessimistic about the ability of the South and other white Americans to fully embrace blacks even in 50or 100 years. We now know that behind the scenes he agonized over this and really did it very passively and reluctantly--didn't meet with black leaders in a serious way, didn't say in public this is really the right thing to do, and I think in retrospect--
JIM LEHRER: He put it on the legal part, didn't he?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He said, it's my--
JIM LEHRER: Rather than moral.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: --responsibility as President to enforce the law, which was not exactly a ringing endorsement of changing social custom. And I just look back and just think how could it have been different? Let's say that Dwight Eisenhower had come back from World War II as the hero, said we just fought a war in Asia and Europe against racism, now the most burning issue we've got domestically in America is to get rid of this curse that has afflicted us for 300 years. Eisenhower had the moral prestige and popularity in the 1950's that he could have changed a lot of minds. Instead, his voice was silent. Had he been more active I think he could have helped to quicken things and perhaps avert some of the violence of the 1960's.
JIM LEHRER: You've done a lot of studying of the Eisenhower years and his presidency. What--who was putting the pressure from both sides? What kind of pressure did he get from both sides?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He got a lot of pressure from liberal Republicans. And as Roger will particularly attest in the 1950's, many blacks were Republican. It went all the way back to the era of Lincoln, and that was at least something of a force within the Republican Party. They were saying, you shouldn't be silent; you should meet with Martin Luther King; you should meet with Roger's uncle, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, other prominent black leaders. He even had a man on the White House staff who was the first black man to be a senior official on the White House staff named Frederick Morrow. And Morrow was marginalized, the white secretaries in the White House wouldn't work for him, Eisenhower really wouldn't even see him, and Morrow writes poignantly of the experience of going to see Eisenhower before a weekend, saying, you really should get more involved in civil rights and thinking that Eisenhower was with him, then would say that Eisenhower would go down to Georgia to a plantation with white Southerners, he'd come back at the end of the weekend, and it was almost as if the conversation had never taken place.
"It was strictly legal, and it certainly didn't give you a sense that this was a President who was saying, 'I know that a lot of my job is moral leadership.'"
JIM LEHRER: Yes. And so--but he did finally make the decision to do this, but it was--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It was strictly legal, and it certainly didn't give you a sense that this was a President who was saying, "I know that a lot of my job is moral leadership."
JIM LEHRER: Doris, as a historian when you look at this then, at this event, removing the Eisenhower part of it, just what happened in the final analysis? How important was it?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, there's no question that it did put the rule of law behind equal treatment for blacks and whites alike, and that's critical even if we say many things didn't happen after that. White flight means that we've come back to too many segregated schools in the inner cities. Even in those schools that are integrated people say that blacks and whites are in separate tracks or they're not socializing in the cafeterias, all of which is a sad commentary on one fatal turning point that I think was taken at the moment that the Supreme Court said that when we started to integrate our schools to meet the Brown V. Board, we could not bring the suburbs into the mix so that the inner cities could meet with the suburbs. Then you truly could have had an integrated system. Instead, all the burden was put on those poor inner city schools, bussing turned out to be a failure in many cases.
I look at Medco in Boston, the volunteer program that brings kids from the inner city to the suburbs. It works brilliantly. There are 3,000 kids in it, 12,000 kids on the waiting list. If we'd been able to do that, when that moment was taken by the Supreme Court, it's led us to a point now where even if we celebrate 1957, there's so much left to be done, and it's a very sad moment to realize how far we still have to go.
JIM LEHRER: Roger Wilkins, yes.
KENNETH BLACKWELL: Jim, let me interject here and say that I believe that a big part of the problem today is an entrenched bureaucracy that puts children's interests last. There are too many children in our country that have been sentenced to district schools determined by where their parents can afford to live. We pride ourselves as being in a country where consumer choice and parental responsibility and competition flourish, but in the monopolistic public education system that is not the case. We can look at bigotry as being a problem in 1957, but in 1997, the problem is the fact that too many of our kids are sentenced to schools or held hostage in districts where schools are not performing. And I think what we need is a new civil rights effort to guarantee that their parents can, in fact, place them in schools that are working.
Race: a matter of law or a matter of the heart?
JIM LEHRER: That's a whole other subject--text to this whole subject. But what about what the President said, Mr. Blackwell, that in the final analysis you can have court decisions, you can have all kinds of laws, but race is basically a matter of the heart?
KENNETH BLACKWELL: Race is a matter of the heart, Jim, but I don't think the issue of giving parents choice and really dealing with the accountability nightmare of our present system where no child's success is directly tied to the continuation and the viability of a school district, schools fail our children, and they continue, and our children--too many of our children are dysfunctional in the present historical context.
JIM LEHRER: Roger Wilkins, a matter of the heart?
ROGER WILKINS: Partly. People who didn't want to do anything always said, this is a matter of the heart. Eisenhower said it. J. W. Fulbright, the very famous and effective Senator from Arkansas, said it. You need both. You need the law. You need the standards of law to move the country ahead. The country would have been segregated for a long, long time had the Warren court not ruled segregation in schools unconstitutional.
JIM LEHRER: Would it have remained that way if those troops had not gone to Little Rock 40 years ago?
ROGER WILKINS: The point I was going to make is that Little Rock was important for two other reasons. If Eisenhower had failed to act, you--the rule of law in this country would have begun to disintegrate. It would have started with Brown, but you'd say who, who is going to enforce what laws? Secondly, there's another really important point. A lot of people think today that gee, things have rolled back, it's a bad time, there are a lot of black poor people, all of that is true.
But if you look at Little Rock, and you see nine brave kids--none of those kids said--told--I. F. Stone at the time--my parents didn't want me to go to Central, but I want to be a doctor, they've got better science facilities there, and besides, I can open doors for other people. Those kids were conscious of the fact that they were making history. Can still make change--the lesson of those kids is don't take bad things that are occurring now as if they're immutable. The kind of activism that Doris talked about, the kind of activism that those kids engaged in can make the country better again.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Without the federal government intervention, you would have had a much more long-term process. It took that shock, and it's hard to realize now in the context of today how violent the times were becoming. You saw those mobs but you had to see those faces, and you had the whole South was rising up. I went back and reread the Southern Manifesto this week--
JIM LEHRER: Refresh our memory what that was.
HAYNES JOHNSON: The Southern block controlled--what they didn't do in the Civil War they did in politics for the next hundred years after slavery and segregation. They ruled Washington, controlled the committees, and they decided what policy, and they kept a segregated society. The Southern Manifesto in 1956, after--in the wake of the civil rights decisions--I mean, the Supreme Court ruling on desegregation, they all said, almost by any visible means we're going to oppose integration in all processes. Virtually every one in the Senate signed it--southerner--except for three people, and all of the House members on the Democrat Southern block. And you had this--and out of that came this massive resistance, mobs, Ku Klux Klan, and so forth. So you had a violent structure about to break, but had the President not acted, as Roger said, I think it would have been even--
JIM LEHRER: Those 1,000 paratroopers with their M-1 rifles, in other words, did make history?
HAYNES JOHNSON: They did make history.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, gentlemen, thank you.