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Jewish World Review May 4, 2000 /29 Nissan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Waiting for Miss Daisy: On time after all -- DANG IT, I'd timed it wrong again. Just like a scruffy newspaper type, If I'm not hopelessly late, I'm much too early.

This morning I got to Little Rock's historic old Robinson Auditorium a whole hour before the formal memorial service was supposed to start for Daisy Bates, the heroine of the Little Rock Crisis of 1957, the lady who had watched over the Little Rock Nine -- the black students Orval Faubus had turned away from Central High School.

His defiance had set off a constitutional crisis and, in the end, put another nail in old Jim Crow's coffin. Mrs. Bates and her kids had seen to that, though it hadn't been easy.

And now there was nothing to do but wait. No sense going back home, or to the office, or even trying to grab a bite of breakfast. Might as well just sit here and read the paper during the opening ceremonies --- at least get something done.

Then it started happening: music, song, children's voices, prayer, good news, that deep-throated transcendent laughter I remember from childhood, the sound of the human heart and soul reaching up, up, up. Yes! Sometimes the overture outdoes the symphony, and dawgone if I wasn't right on time after all. I got to hear two elementary school choirs, and the magnificent Central High choir itself, every voice lifting. Thank you, sweet singers, I needed that.

Goodness, I thought, why don't I start every day like this? (Well, Son, nobody's stopping you, are they?) I resolved right then and there: If the heavenly choir is anything like the ones in Little Rock's schools, I'm gonna straighten up and fly right from now on.

Eventually there were speakers, too, and the most eloquent and understandable of them all was right down in front: the lady who was putting all the words into visual poetry. In my ignorance of sign, I can't vouch for the accuracy of her translations, but as an eyewitnesses, I can testify to their beauty, rhythm, coordination. Her hands were gentle rain one moment, glory ascending the next, and everything fast and slow in between -- like Kabuki or ballet. It's not true that something is always lost in translation; some things may be gained.

And for the first time in a long time -- can it be 40 years? -- we stood again, swaying, holding hands, carried away by tranquil hope, singing and knowing and believing We Shall Overcome. Someday. And it all came back, the time when civil rights was a cause, and not another special interest, when all of us had them, and we would overcome together. Someday.

Strangely enough, the old and ever new words of that anthem and hymn and invitation now seemed to have nothing to do with the past, nothing at all, but with a future -- the same future we had sung about back then, and it was closer than ever. Yes! Thank you, Jesus.

And we knew even before the program had begun, even before the speakers started speechifying and the words obscuring, that this morning's assemblage wasn't about Daisy Bates' past, the one she threw off and even now helps us throw off, like some grimy husk we've all outgrown, even those of us who don't know it yet, but about the future that Daisy Gatson Bates, that orphan child from Arkansas, saw, and then made.

Every great, collective effort, every creation of order out of disorder, justice out of injustice, begins in one mind, one heart, one set of dancing, knowing, beautiful eyes like hers.

For a moment, not so much in memory but in anticipation, we seemed to step out of the mundane present, the appointments to keep and the politics to play, and the never-ending sound of axes grinding, into the vision Mrs. Bates had let us see back then -- would not let us not see. We left behind the leaven of time and tasted of the bread itself, of history and something beyond history.

It was the music that did it, and the dance of the sign lady's hands in perfect time to the rhythms of the singers. Her signs gave even the speakers music, and the preachers among them had it to begin with. If you ain't ever heard Rufus Young Sr. of Little Rock's Bethel AME Church preach, then you ain't ever heard music, and his message this morning was a practiced aria, its every tempo refined. Yes!

The president of the United States was there, too. And he was most welcome, and eloquent, and mercifully brief for a politician: 14 minutes. It must have been something of a record. And they were a good 14 minutes, too -- full of good will, humor, delight, and largely free of politics, at least in the usual sense. Any awkwardnesses were fleeting, and the historical revisionism not heavy-handed.

Whatever this president can do to heal the gaps between Americans may be slight at this point, but there's no doubt that his talking about bringing us together is good for his healing. And no one should begrudge him that. On the contrary, it was good to see this sign of it. Hurry back, Mr. President. The fatted calf will be waiting.

By the time the service broke up, the spirit was still in the air, the notes still echoing, and Miss Daisy's ever benign, ever challenging presence still strong. People lingered, talked, tarried. I didn't want to leave, either. Then it dawned: That healing presence of hers, we could take it with us. And the glory will be His.

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