Redemption, after Little Rock

In the photo, taken 50 years ago, a white girl screams hatred at a nicely dressed black girl, who’s trying to get through an angry crowd to integrated Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Vanity Fair tells the story of Elizabeth Ecksford, the most emotionally fragile of the Little Rock Nine, and her belated reconciliation with Hazel Bryant Massery, who became ashamed of her racism. (Via Eduwonk.)

For a time, the two women became friends, but the friendship cooled.

Central High School looks as imposing as ever, but over the past 50 years, its innards have changed unimaginably: the school is now more than half black. It’s all misleading, of course, because Central is really two different schools, separate and unequal, under one roof. The blacks go to different classes, sit on separate sides of the cafeteria, have different, and far lower, levels of performance and expectations.

Shelby Steele believes Little Rock was “the beginning of a profoundly different America.

Every day for weeks (Americans) saw white people so consumed with racial hatred that they looked bestial and subhuman. When white racism was a confident power, it could look like propriety itself, like good manners. But here, in its insecurity, it was grotesque and shocking. Worse, it was there for the entire world to see, and so it broke through the national denial. The Little Rock crisis revealed the evil at the core of segregation, and it launched the stigmatization of white Americans as racists that persists to this day.

. . . We are a nation with a powerful investment in the idea of our own fundamental innocence. Our can-do optimism and ingenuity are based on the faith that we are a decent, open, and generous people. This is our identity. And when we shame ourselves, as in Little Rock, there is an impulse to get busy; to do something big that redeems the shame and proves that its implications about us are false.

The Great Society was our attempt to redeem ourselves from racism, Steele writes.

. . . on this 50th anniversary of the Little Rock crisis, it is important to remember that this evil did happen in America, and that no engineered redemption can make us innocent again. And we might also remember that it is better to be chastened than innocent. Innocents don’t learn from their sins; the chastened are informed by them.

Via Power Line, which notes that the face of the civil rights movement has gone from “innocent black school children who were trying to get an education” to “black teenagers who beat a white student unconscious and apparently were overcharged by a prosecutor.”

Update: An HBO documentary on Little Rock Central, 50 Years Later shows the self-segregation persists, writes Liam Julian on Education Gadfly. White and black students rarely interact with each other in class or in the lunchroom; few blacks take advanced classes.

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