ABILENE, KAN., JUNE 5 -- On this gentle late-spring Kansas day, the old white-haired man, now 80, edged through a crowd milling in the lobby of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library before the start of a retrospective conference on black-white relations in the 1950s. At last he reached the back of the room, where he encountered a diminutive, middle-aged black woman.
"I'm Orval Faubus," he said. His eyes searched her face for some feature that he might remember from long ago. He did not know who she was but had reason to believe that she would remember his name. She smiled and clasped his outstretched hand.
"I'm Thelma Mothershed," came the reply.
"Well," Faubus said. "How do you do?"
The name definitely rang an old bell. "I never did see you during all that turmoil," Faubus started to explain, but Mothershed cut him off and saved further embarrassment with a self-deprecating and yet chillingly evocative rejoinder: "Oh, that's because I was so short. You could never see me in any of the pictures because I was below the heads of the crowds."
Mothershed and Faubus were linked in history, yet until now had never met. Not even in 1957, when Mothershed, then a junior in high school, was among nine young black students who walked through taunting, spitting white mobs to break the color barrier at Little Rock Central High and Faubus, governor of Arkansas, called up the Arkansas National Guard in an effort to keep the Little Rock Nine from accomplishing their pioneering civil rights mission.
Three other members of the Little Rock Nine came to Abilene today to participate in the historic conference, part of a yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of Eisenhower's birth. Also here were the widow and two daughters of Oliver Brown, whose 1954 Supreme Court challenge of the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., changed the face of both American race relations and public education, and former attorney general Herbert Brownell Jr. and several other Eisenhower administration figures who played key roles at the dawn of the civil rights era.
Like Faubus and Mothershed, most of the black and white participants were being brought together for the first time. More than 30 years have passed since their momentous early days, and their encounters here in Ike's hometown out on the prairie of north-central Kansas elicited a wide range of emotions and memories. At times the scenes were rich with goodwill and reconciliation. At times they were not.
Brownell, considered the most influential voice for integration in Eisenhower's inner circle, delivered the opening address. With Faubus and the Little Rock blacks sitting in the audience, he coolly attributed the turmoil of 1957 to the former governor's stubborn segregationism. Tears welled in his eyes when he spoke of how the black students "behaved magnificently" 33 years ago and how "through the ensuing years, the nation watched sympathetically and with pride the progress of those beleaguered black schoolchildren in their mature years."
Four members of the audience rose to give Brownell a standing ovation when he finished. There were Mothershed, whose married name is Wair and who is a counselor in Belleville, Ill., and her three Little Rock compatriots -- Ernest Green, an investment banker in Washington; Terrence Roberts, an assistant dean of social welfare at UCLA; and Carlotta Walls Lanier, a real estate broker in Colorado. "I think we appreciated the fact that he didn't let Faubus off the hook," Green said. "And we sort of got caught up in the emotion of it, too."
Minutes later, as Brownell moved to the side of the room, he was surrounded by Leola Brown Montgomery, Linda Brown Buckner and Cheryl Brown Henderson, the widow and daughters of Oliver Brown. They asked for his autograph. He said he should ask for theirs.
No autographs were exchanged between Faubus and the veterans of the Little Rock Nine. In some ways unrepentant after all these years, Faubus, who was governor of Arkansas for five terms, said he did not regret his actions preventing the black students from entering Central High. He said his first concern was for the safety of everyone involved, including the black students.
"I regret that it happened at all, but based on the circumstances then I don't regret what I did," Faubus said in an interview here. "What I said, maybe, but not what I did."
His rambling comments on the subject during a panel discussion this afternoon were greeted coolly: He was hissed twice. The kindest thing said about him all day was by the library's director, Richard Norton Smith, who said, "His coming today shows not only grace under pressure but courage."
For the four members of the Little Rock Nine, the conference offered an opportunity to reflect on the history they made and on the state of race relations three decades later. Among the images they recalled were the bayonets of the 101st Airborne Division sent by Eisenhower to protect them, having their lockers broken into every day by racist rowdies who stole their books, and being hit by tomatoes, spat at, sworn at. "Every day was a war," said Green, whose graduation in the spring of 1958 -- first among the nine because the others were juniors and sophomores that year -- was attended by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Now, 33 years later, how do they feel about race in America?
Thelma Jean Mothershed Wair was pessimistic in a sense. "I think race relations have really deteriorated," she said. "With all that we went through, we thought we were laying the foundation for things to better. Now things are backsliding; how and why is a mystery to me."
Roberts, a practicing psychologist, said that American society "has never really confronted the issues of race on a deep and meaningful level" and that one result has been increasingly divergent perceptions of truth and reality among many blacks and whites.
"All of us are conditioned to think racially, which I see as detrimental," Roberts said. "Our whole mind-set is archaic. We don't think in terms of individuals. We think in terms of descriptions, definitions, racial groups. That's the unfortunate condition of our society."
The three Browns from Topeka participated in an afternoon panel with Paul Wilson, the former Kansas assistant attorney general whose first assignment was to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court the state's case in support of a law allowing segregation of Kansas elementary schools. Their discussion revealed the capriciousness of history.
Linda Brown Buckner, for instance, noted that Brown v. the Board of Education should have been named for another Brown, Darlene, who was another of the 13 black Topeka parents involved in the case. "But it was the 1950s, and there was a bit of sexism," she said. "So my father, Oliver, was placed as the first plaintiff."
Wilson, who in the three decades since the decision has been very open about the narrow social thinking that surrounded the state's case, said that the school board in Topeka had turned against segregation in 1952 and wanted to drop the case but that the Kansas attorney general was pressured by the state's Supreme Court chief justice to keep up the defense of a statute that the state court had upheld several times.
Cheryl Brown Henderson, the younger daughter, was born the year that the case was brought and spent her childhood going to schools integrated through the deeds of her father and older sister. She described her life as "a series of ironies." After attending Sumner Elementary School, the previously all-white institution from which her older sister was barred, she eventually taught school at Monroe Elementary, the previously all-black school that her sister and their mother before her were forced to attend during the days of "separate but equal."
By the time she taught at Monroe, she said, it had become a very different place from the school that her sister and mother had attended. The students had lost confidence in themselves, they were harder to discipline, the teachers seemed disinterested. One of the failings of desegregation, she said, is that not enough time and care were put into proper training on issues of race. "Today," she said, "we are still paying the price for that."