Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 2005 / 9 Elul, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Unveiled: The Little Rock Nine | This is the day that the L-rd hath made . . .

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — At long last the summer's heat had broken. Just in time for the long-awaited dedication at the state Capitol. Who would have thought, back in 1957, when nine black children were turned away from Central High School, and a constitutional crisis unleashed, that one day they would be coming back as senior citizens to watch their youthful likenesses unveiled on the Capitol lawn?

Once the target of scorn and spittle, ugly names and uglier politics, this bright day they would be the honorees. They who go forth weeping to sow seeds shall return joyfully bearing sheaves. It was a kind of Sabbath, and how we all could use one. Which of today's travails will become heroism rewarded 48 years into the uncertain future?

The fresh morning air, washed clean by the recent rains, has been stirred only by a gentle, cooling breeze. All the colors are bright, as in a patriotic painting, and everything and everybody is in bold outline against the greens and blues — the flags, the dome of the state Capitol, the people, the looks on the little kids' faces, and the still black-draped statues of the Little Rock Nine, waiting for the moment they are to be unveiled.

The wind whips the shrouds around each, as if they were eager to come to life, to see the light. Patience. After 48 years, it would be only 45 minutes longer before the covers came off and John Deering's nine figures, seven years in the making from conception to dedication, will be everybody's to gaze upon.

The crowd mills around like a congregation on the church steps before a service starts, greeting one another, recognizing old friends, meeting new ones, all in wonder that this could be happening. The peace of it, the quiet pride.

Someone says this is the first monument to the civil rights movement to be erected on the grounds of a Southern state capitol. It is like a prophecy fulfilled: They who were last had become first. 'Rah for Arkansas!

The overture is always the best part of these things. Latecomers begin to fill in the gaps, as if the crowd were a painting-by-the-numbers. Some are in their Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes, others in jeans. The berets and camo of the troops alternate with State Trooper blue. Like an Hebrew Bible prophet in beard and red T-shirt, there's my friend the Reverend Hezekiah Stewart with a hug and blessing. Things get more biblical every minute.

A mellow sax plays over the heads of the gathering crowd as the heavens smile. Fluffy white clouds are rolled in above like painted scenery, as if the L-rd G-d had decided to do a Grandma Moses. Black and brown and cafe-au-lait, red-tinged and champagne pale, caramel and bronze, We the People mill about, as if Little Rock had on a coat of many colors.

The people wait, as they waited all those years. Folks chat, smile at old friends, nod to strangers. Flannery O'Connor once said that all racial integration would accomplish is that it would let more folks mill around together. And that is enough. Yes, the overture is definitely the best part of these things. All expectation, it cannot disappoint.

Prayers are said for the hurricane victims to the South, for Arkansas, for the country. Then comes the fanfare, and in march the Little Rock Nine, or at least their older selves, looking strangely like everybody else. How ordinary courage is; it is within each of us if only we would seize it. "Bravery," one of the speakers will say, "is being afraid of what you have to do."

The politicians, as usual, bring up the rear. Just as they did in the civil rights movement. Then the speeches begin and the brightness fades a little with each bit of self-promotion, each mention of what the Honorables and their colleagues did to make all this possible. How do they do it, talk so long and say so little?

A phrase or two does linger in the air. "There were times when we wondered if we'd make it," one of the speakers says of the monument to the Little Rock Nine, but he could be talking about the whole 40 years in the wilderness.

And then the nine standing figures are undraped, free at last, thank G-d Almighty, free at last. They are still striding uphill; they haven't made it to the top yet, and neither have we. But they've come a long way. And so have we. Or as Dr. King used to say, "We ain't what we oughta be, we ain't what we wanna be, we ain't what we gonna be, but, thank G-d, we ain't what we was." . . . Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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