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From AJR,   October 1997  issue

Integrating the Past in Arkansas   


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Retrospective articles that recall major historical events are hardly unusual. But wouldn't readers better understand the past if they could somehow return to the times being remembered?

That seems to be the hope of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Executive Editor Griffin Smith jr., and the premise behind his idea of commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Little Rock school desegregation crisis — one of the most significant events in the state's history — by reprinting the front pages of the newspapers of that time.

From August 29 through October 6, the front pages of the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette from those same days in 1957 are running inside the 172,223-circulation Democrat-Gazette, at nearly full size. On two extra pages in the newshole, at a cost of about $3,000 per day, the two front pages appear side by side in the local news section, without jumps. A handful of additional articles from the papers' 1957 coverage as well as the front pages can be found on the Democrat-Gazette's Web site, www.ardemgaz.com .

"Our decision was to try to convey the news of that time unfiltered and unmediated, rather than ask people to rely on faulty memories. The key decision was, 'Let's go back,' " says Smith, who was in high school in Arkansas during the 1957 crisis. "This is something that print journalism can do. This is our strength. We're not collecting history. We're giving them [readers] history straight."

Little Rock made the national news in the fall of 1957, when its school board slowly began to desegregate the schools despite a public outcry. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called in state National Guard troops to stop the planned Septem-ber 3, 1957, integration of black students at Central High School. A federal judge ordered the troops' removal, and finally, on September 25, nine black students reentered Central High with federal escorts.

At the time, the two Arkansas papers were "covering their hearts out," says Smith. During the 37 days in 1957, the competing papers printed 385 front page stories and 134 front page photographs. (The Gazette received two Pulitzers for its work.) The Democrat swallowed up the Gazette in 1991.

As Smith planned the commemorative reprints, journalists and civil rights activists lauded both papers' coverage of the events, so he decided to print both.

"I talked to both editors of the papers who said their staffs were fully mobilized for a month to cover this," says Assistant Managing Editor/ features Jack Schnedler. "A person looking at the front pages and asked who beat who couldn't make that call."

Along with showcasing past coverage, Smith says the Democrat-Gazette "will be covering the hell out of everything that's happening in Little Rock." Assistant Managing Editor/news Ray Hobbs is overseeing the day-to-day coverage, which includes coverage of events held around a visit by President Clinton and a lengthy look at school desegregation in the United States.

But the focus is on the old newspaper pages to give readers a sense of how events were reported at the time. Coverage written now, according to Schnedler, is apt to err in one of two ways — either to label the whites of the South as hateful and racist, or to excuse the actions because the events took place a long time ago when people thought differently. "We're giving readers a time capsule," Schnedler says.

How accurate and objective was the reporting in 1957? Very, according to Schnedler. "Obviously there weren't any black reporters on either paper to my knowledge. But the coverage, to my eye, was fair and not in any way what I would call pro-segregationist," he says.

Two former Gazette reporters, Gene Foreman, 62, now deputy editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Roy Reed, 67, a retired reporter and author of "Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal," a biography that illuminates the Arkansas governor's role in the crisis, agree the journalists were fair in their reportage.

"I thought the coverage was bold and insightful," says Foreman. "There was a strong effort to be reasonable, not to incite people."

Foreman thinks the Democrat-Gazette's project will interest readers. Reed now shares his belief, but he wasn't sold initially.

"When I first heard about it, I thought, 'Oh God, haven't we had enough?' And then, as soon as the front pages began to appear, I found myself reading them more and more carefully each day and being taken back in time," says Reed.

Reed applauds the Democrat-Gazette's decision to devote the space it has to reprint the old front pages. "It seems to me, in years past, newspapers were a good bit more willing to devote space and resources for valuable projects for which there was no obvious profit for the publisher," Reed says. "It's hard to imagine that one of our fluffed up, televisionized papers would devote this kind of space."