Fifty years ago today, riot-trained troops from the 101st Airborne Division escorted nine black students through the doors of Central High School in Little Rock. Just 48 hours earlier, President Eisenhower deployed -- in a single day -- 1,000 troops to restore order and to reassert federal authority in Arkansas's capital city.
For weeks the entire nation had watched on television as a mob of angry white adults gathered each morning to prevent the nine black students from integrating Central High. It would come to be remembered as one of the ugliest and meanest white mobs of the entire civil rights era. And because of television -- then still a very new medium -- the horrible images of people galvanized by ferocious racial hatred were seared into the national consciousness.
Finally, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus succumbed to a kind of madness, if not to a perverse politics of racial hatred, and withdrew the National Guard from Central High, effectively turning the school over to the raging mob. The nine courageous black students, who had suffered so much to integrate the school, were withdrawn for their own protection. So, for a time, the authority of the mob prevailed over all governmental authority -- local, state and federal. And this was the provocation that pushed a reluctant President Eisenhower to deploy federal troops.
On this 50th anniversary of Eisenhower's troop deployment, the significance of the Little Rock crisis -- its place in history -- is much clearer. I believe it was the beginning of a profoundly different America.
For one thing, it foreshadowed the end of white supremacy as a legitimate authority. The Little Rock crisis was a conflict between two ideas of authority that had always been in tension in American life. The authority behind the Little Rock Nine came from that constellation of principles that define the American democracy -- the idea of individual rights, equality under the law and so on. But in America another authority had always been in play -- the atavistic authority of white supremacy, the idea that no less a power than God had chosen the white race to be ascendant over all other races. This was the authority behind the white mob in Little Rock. In taunting those nine black students, this mob was protecting a "divine right" against the ridiculous democratic notion that all men were created equal.
But the mob lost in Little Rock. Eisenhower enforced democratic authority over white supremacy. He made the point that these two authorities could no longer pretend to coexist in the public schools of even a Southern city. In this way the Little Rock crisis joined black Americans to a world-wide movement. The Mau Maus viciously fought this same nemesis in Kenya, Gandhi peacefully fought it in India, and the very first terrorist bombers fought it in Algeria. But in Little Rock the American government, overcoming two centuries of equivocation, broke off from white supremacy and took up the cause of black revolutionaries -- and so administered white entitlement a decisive defeat.
But the deeper historical importance of the Little Rock crisis follows from the simple fact that it was televised. It was, in fact, the first time that this still fledgling medium was able to make America into a community by rendering up a riveting real-life drama for the country to watch. Compelling personalities emerged, like the despicable and erratic Gov. Faubus, who kept flaunting federal authority like a little potentate. There was Eisenhower himself, whose grandfatherly patience with Faubus seemed to belie a sympathy with this racist's need to hold on to a fading authority. And there was the daily gauntlet that the black students were made to walk -- innocence face to face with evil. And, finally, there was great suspense. How would it all end? Would there by a military clash, another little civil war between North and South?
So Americans watched by the millions and, in this watching, saw something that would change the country fundamentally. Everyday for weeks they saw white people so consumed with racial hatred that they looked bestial and subhuman. When white racism was a confident power, it could look like propriety itself, like good manners. But here, in its insecurity, it was grotesque and shocking. Worse, it was there for the entire world to see, and so it broke through the national denial. The Little Rock crisis revealed the evil at the core of segregation, and it launched the stigmatization of white Americans as racists that persists to this day. After Little Rock whites stood permanently accused. They would have to prove a negative -- that they were not racist -- in order to claim decency. And this need to forever beg one's innocence is the very essence of white guilt.
Of course, it was the special genius of the civil rights leaders of that era to elicit displays of white evil by confronting whites with black innocence -- often children and teenagers, neatly dressed and scrupulously groomed, aspiring only to what all humans aspire to, a decent education or the right to eat at a lunch counter. Still, these leaders couldn't elicit what wasn't there. White evil was there. And the greatest significance of the Little Rock crisis was that it put on display a distinct white moral inferiority.
This introduced a new accountability into white American life. Americans had always thought themselves a great people -- more solidly grounded in the morality of fairness than any other people. Moreover, it was Western culture that had evolved the kind of moral system that made Little Rock look so evil. But, in the end, all this meant was that the good citizens of Little Rock should have known better. Evil was evil. And, after Little Rock, white America began to become accountable for its racial evil.
But Americans have not been particularly good at integrating this kind of accountability. We are a nation with a powerful investment in the idea of our own fundamental innocence. Our can-do optimism and ingenuity are based on the faith that we are a decent, open, and generous people. This is our identity. And when we shame ourselves, as in Little Rock, there is an impulse to get busy; to do something big that redeems the shame and proves that its implications about us are false. This is, of course, a form of denial. In our busyness we may dissociate from the shame, but this is no proof that we have integrated its meaning.
For the most part, this is how white America came to handle its new accountability in the civil rights era. The country got busy self-consciously redeeming itself. Redemption would be our big, ingenious achievement. If freedom and opportunity and wealth had always been the special mandates of American life, suddenly redemption was added to the list. And, as the civil rights movement worked its way through many more Little Rocks, as a movement for women's equality burst forth, and as the Vietnam War came to be held against America, the idea of American evil expanded and, thus, redemption became more and more entrenched as a national mandate.
By the mid 1960s this mandate had already given us a new illiberal liberalism -- a busybody, interventionist liberalism that was more bent on erecting an American redemption than ensuring freedom. The Great Society wanted to make America look like a country in which Little Rock could never have happened. It failed because it was a venture in denial rather than in realistic social transformation. And today's "diversity" will fail because it, too, is only a denial -- a kitsch that gives us an image of an America shorn of Little Rocks.
But on this 50th anniversary of the Little Rock crisis, it is important to remember that this evil did happen in America, and that no engineered redemption can make us innocent again. And we might also remember that it is better to be chastened than innocent. Innocents don't learn from their sins; the chastened are informed by them.
Mr. Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, is the author of "White Guilt" (HarperCollins, 2006).