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Blindsided by History
Gary Smith
April 09, 2007
Fifty years ago segregationists trying to keep black students out of Little Rock Central High inadvertently broke up one of the country's greatest football dynasties
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April 09, 2007

Blindsided By History

Fifty years ago segregationists trying to keep black students out of Little Rock Central High inadvertently broke up one of the country's greatest football dynasties

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This picture shouldn't be published. It belongs in a moldy scrapbook in some old man's attic. Its time is done. Its way of life is finished. Even the school these 42 white boys played for a half century ago did away with it. Took it down one day to paint a hallway in the early '90s, and then....

What became of it? Some said it was stowed beneath the auditorium stage and destroyed in a fire. Some said that a black janitor threw it away along with four decades of other team photos from that hallway because no black faces appeared in them. No, others claimed, it was a black principal who decreed that the school's history began the day that all people became welcome there and that no image from its prehistoric past would ever be displayed.

Not even this one, the 1957 Little Rock Central Tigers, the best high school football team in America that year.

This story shouldn't be told. No one wants to hear it. They're all too busy celebrating another group at Central High that year--the nine black kids. Too busy planning their 50th anniversary, building their museum across the street, getting ready for the crowds and the network news reporters and the two presidents, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, who will fill the school's front yard on Sept. 25 to commemorate them.

No one wants to tell this story. Not even the white boys who lived it. It reeks of political incorrectness. It's sure to be misconstrued. They can't ask you to feel for them: They're Southern Caucasian males on the other side of 65, for goodness' sake. Born and bred not to feel for themselves.

Just 42 of the white faces on the wrong side of the saga of the Little Rock 9.

This is the photograph of today's team. This is the picture that everyone coming to the 50th anniversary wants to see. Forty-four of the 67 players are black. One's a Turk. One's the son of an Iranian. One's parents are from Nigeria. One's a white country boy who hunts ducks at dawn on school days. Another's father is Korean, his stepdad black, his mother white. All playing for a school that owns the second-most state football championships--32--of any school in the U.S.

These kids know the story of the Little Rock 9 by heart. They've seen the plaques honoring them in their school's entry, the benches dedicated to them out front, the statues of them on the state capitol lawn. They've seen films, read books and written reports about what the nine endured so that Central High's team picture could look the way it does today.

But those white boys in that vanished photo, their Tigers predecessors ... who are they? What happened to them that fateful year and the even more wrenching one that followed? Today's team hasn't a clue.

What if Little Rock Central added a wrinkle to its 50th? Imagine if everyone in those two team pictures sat elbow to elbow at dinner in the school cafeteria and tried to understand what happened from both sides, what might be learned.

No, not Hollywood's or history's version. Not what happened to the heroes or the hatemongers, not the black-and-white version. The story of the gray, the people in between, the majority that ends up drifting toward one side or the other and determining history, often without even knowing why. The ones we need to understand most, because they're us--the kids we likely would've been had we grown up white in the '50s in the South--and because we, too, might drift when our moment comes. Just teenagers, so absorbed in their search for love and identity that they hadn't even begun to take stock of the injustices swirling around them, to understand the forces about to sweep them off their feet. Teenagers just hungry to feel part of a group, the one that gave their town its greatest pride: its mighty football team.

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