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.
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
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
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.
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.