Fifty years after it took a show of force from the 101st Airborne to get them a hall pass at Little Rock Central High School, the students who became known as the Little Rock Nine returned to Central High this week to celebrate the triumph of common sense and decency over prejudice and discrimination.
It was a joyous event, made more so by the seeming miracle -- to me anyway -- that all nine are still alive and well enough to be in attendance for what is now a national celebration.
I was not in Little Rock this week, but 10 years ago, for the 40th anniversary, I was there, and what I remember was how grand the actual school building at Little Rock Central High turned out to be with its almost gothic facade and wide entrance stairway that rises to a grand esplanade.
After the black and white shots, and the combat boot and bayonets, grandeur was not something I had associated with this place that had become a totem in the annals of American racism. But I came to realize that the true triumph of Little Rock was the chance it allowed the nine and all those who followed to share in the grandeur of the American experience.
Fifty years later the Central High student body is 52 percent black, and by some accounts, a self-segregating institution. Race is a hard nut to crack. According to Felicia Lee's reporting in Tuesday's edition of the New York Times: "Central, many said, is now two schools in one: a poor, demoralized black majority and a high-achieving, affluent white minority."
So while anniversary celebrations may fill us with nostalgia, they also compel us to assess our progress or lack of it. There is no question that in the 50 years since Little Rock, the quality of race relations, if not the quality of urban schools, in America has improved beyond measure.
We celebrate the Little Rock Nine at the same time we lament the Jena 6. We celebrate it as we try to make sense of Bill O'Reilly's astonishment that the dining experience at a famed eatery in Harlem -- Sylvia's -- does not conform to the script of a Blaxploitation movie.
The raving Fox News ratings giant told listeners on his radio show, The Radio Factor, that he went to dinner with Al Sharpton, and "could not get over" how normal the black people are.
"I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City," O'Reilly gushed. "I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship." There was no chance it could be better, apparently.
And there was more: "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' "
Wow! We did overcome, after all.
O'Reilly sees the controversy as one manufactured by detractors and competitors. He did, after all, spend much of the show lamenting the fact that many portrayals of black people in popular culture were demeaning and created an inaccurate image of black life in America.
What is at once funny and disheartening about the O'Reilly comments is that the prejudices on display (that the niceness of the restaurant is not what you would expect since it was "run by blacks, primarily a black patronship") are so tightly woven into his un-ironic sensibilities that he is unable to even see the speed bumps or feel when he hits them.
His amazement at Sylvia's is based on the fact that he expects blacks to behave differently, lesser, because they are black: It may or may not be racism, but it is the very essence of the prejudice that morphs into racism when acted upon, especially in the hands of the powerful. And O'Reilly is a powerful man. So, yes, things change, but oh so slowly.
Two weeks ago, the three-judge panel at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, heard arguments in a case involving a Texas municipal utility district that wants Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act overturned. They argue that Section 5 is not equally applied to all 50 states and that things have changed considerably for black voters in the South since 1965. Section 5 seeks to protect voters in 16 states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls, and it imposes heavy regulatory measures on changes in voting procedures that might affect minority voters.
In a system known as pre-clearance, any changes must be approved by the attorney general or a federal court. Without that approval, voting districts can't be re-configured, polling places can't be moved and identification requirements can't be changed.
But things have changed so much, claims the board of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1. One of the District's lawyers argued that the required reviews unfairly serve as "a scarlet letter these jurisdictions wear" even in cases where there is no evidence of discrimination. The utility's lawyer, Gregory Coleman, argued that Section 5 was intended to address electoral "gamesmanship" on the part of some election officials, and that gamesmanship is no longer in evidence.
"It's not gamesmanship; it's discrimination," observed Judge Emmett Sullivan. "Discrimination has taken on a different form. They are more sophisticated."
You would just be amazed at how well behaved we can be when Bill O'Reilly is around.
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