Miss West stared
in disbelief as Johnny and his friend rose. "Don't do it," she
They did it. They
walked out of the room, out of the building. The segregationists cheered.
Johnny felt his
legs begin to move faster and faster, hurrying to get away. Two hours later the
crowd would be cheering even louder: The black kids were gone. The mob's
assaults on the police line had grown so fierce by high noon that the cops had
smuggled the Little Rock 9 out of Central High in fear for their lives.
dreaded facing Miss West again, wouldn't return to school for a week. He'd tell
today's team what he's tried to teach his own children, about the importance of
knowing themselves and standing up for their values. About finding himself, all
these years later, going overboard to boom greetings to black strangers, about
buying whatever the black salesman at the front door's selling. About five
decades of regret.
needs to take a walk to the auditorium with Buddy Tackett. Quadel would
understand when Buddy began explaining what it was like to be the fat kid whom
the boys would taunt and the girls would look right past. He'd get it when
Buddy spoke of his epiphany in junior high, howling and hoisting barbells and
gulping protein shakes, converting angst into dominance, lard into iron, a
garage into a forge. Turning into the most powerful kid at Central, the
all-state lineman who could pile-drive the seven-man blocking sled the length
of the field alone.
understand, even though he was 50 years younger and black, because Buddy's
story was his story. It was this room--Central's magnificent auditorium--where
both of them yearned to reap the recognition of who they'd become. This theater
where Central still holds its pep rallies, leaps and roars for its football
team; this stage where Buddy and Quadel longed to be anointed The Man.
Buddy would point
toward the seats, empty now, and remember sitting here, shaking his head that
morning: Sept. 25, 1957. It was two days after the Little Rock 9's attempt to
integrate the school had ended in chaos. Two days before the big game against
Baton Rouge Istrouma. Buddy's father had just dropped him off at school. They'd
hesitated for a moment outside, blinking. There was a howitzer and a tank,
machine guns mounted at the corners of the football stadium and on the school's
roof. A helicopter churned overhead as a platoon raced up and down Park Street
with fixed bayonets. Sweet Jesus. Overnight, President Eisenhower had sent
1,200 paratroopers from the Army's crack division, the famed Screaming Eagles
of the 101st Airborne, to occupy the school and quell the mob.
had looked at him. "You think you ought to go in there?" he asked.
don't," said Buddy, "Coach Matthews will be at our house this
better go in," his father said.