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Sixty years have passed since nine black Arkansas teenagers braved the taunts of a racist mob just to go to school.

Federal troops had to escort them to and from classes at Little Rock Central High School on that long-ago September day.

Those teenagers are in their mid-70s now. Unlike the days when Gov. Orval Faubus infamously sent the Arkansas National Guard to block their entry into that schoolhouse, they were welcomed back this week as heroes by a diverse Central High School student body and a host of public figures.

Yet, as the eight surviving members of the "Little Rock Nine" commemorated their historic experience, they unfortunately did so against a backdrop of continued racial divide.

Much of the noise right now is over how national sports figures choose to protest what they see as police brutality and other inequities in the treatment of the races.

The debate is quite literally wrapped up in the American flag with people on different sides seemingly unable to appreciate the others' point of view.

Fanning the flames is a U.S. president who ought to be worrying about the plight of storm-struck Puerto Rico and many other domestic issues. Instead, he's goading an unstable North Korean dictator and trying to get football players fired for exercising their constitutional rights.

The more serious undercurrent is, of course, the real prejudice and inequity in the culture -- including police shootings and other events that have brought on so many passionate public protests.

Not the least of them was that march in Charlottesville, Va., by Klansmen, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites that erupted into violence.

In Little Rock last week, Minnijean Brown Trickey talked of being emotionally "triggered" by the news reports from that recent white-nationalist rally.

"It felt exactly the same way," she said, recalling the angry mobs that had turned out to try to block the desegregation of Central High when she was a teen.

"I thought, 'This is 60 years later. I don't want this. I can't believe this happened in this time.'"

"Of course," she continued, "I can believe it, because that's who we are, OK?"

It isn't how anyone has to be, nor how everyone is today.

But you can imagine how the sight of torch-bearing, hate-spewing marchers could resurrect fear in someone who experienced the resistance to desegregation so directly in 1957 Little Rock.

An iconic black-and-white photograph of another of the young warriors, Elizabeth Eckford, captured the tension of those days.

She clutched her schoolbooks tight to her chest as she determinedly walked past the jeering crowd.

Hate glared from the faces of the segregationists. Her fear was palpable on that first day of the school year, when she and the others were refused entry on Gov. Faubus' order.

Three weeks later, President Dwight Eisenhower upped the ante, dispatching the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the students and clear the way for the school's integration.

It is that day that was commemorated in Little Rock over the weekend and on Monday, the actual anniversary of the first day the Little Rock Nine attended classes.

It was indeed an historic time not just in Little Rock but in a nation still adjusting to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that forced much-needed changes in the nation's schools.

The challenges certainly continued for the Little Rock Nine and for the school district, where the schools actually closed the next year to postpone their inevitable full integration.

What happened in 1957 and in the next years defined Arkansas to most of America for decades. It still does, although not exclusively.

Thankfully, the new images include a multi-racial crowd of Central High students gathered around the surviving members of the Little Rock Nine, soaking up the history and hearing their collective call to stand against racism -- however it presents itself today and tomorrow.

Commentary on 09/27/2017

Print Headline: Six decades of ... progress?

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