Memorable Christmas kindness was a gift of light in a dark era

The 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas was a milestone in the civil rights movement.
The 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas was a milestone in the civil rights movement. Central High Museum Collection

This special work originally appeared in The Star on Christmas Day 2005.

Alone and away from home that Christmas Eve of 1957, I learned a lesson about the unexpected decency one sometimes has the luck to meet.

What I discovered was that even in the angriest times, in places you expect will be unwelcoming, surprising kindness may seek you out.

I was a young man in Army service at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, and had managed to hitch a ride home on holiday leave aboard a military transport plane bound for a reserve base just outside Kansas City.

The flight offered no amenities and no comfort, just canvas sling seats in the cargo hold. But the passage was free — a blessing on a soldier’s wage.

When we took off in late afternoon the Carolina weather was pleasant. But conditions worsened as evening came on, first with drizzle, then fog. The pilot had no choice but to make an unscheduled landing short of our destination.

“Where are we?” I asked the crew chief.

“Little Rock,” he said. And it was not good news.

Remember, if you can, the events of that autumn in that city. In September, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that three years earlier had mandated the integration of public schools.

Faubus used National Guard troops to bar nine black youngsters from entering Little Rock Central High. Unruly white mobs, undeterred by local police, gathered outside the school screaming racial slurs and threatening the black children.

The crisis grew daily more heated. The Klan burned crosses. Death threats were issued. Parents of some of the black youngsters were fired from their jobs. And Faubus warned that if Central High were integrated “blood would run in the streets.”

Finally, the city’s mayor, Woodrow Mann, and Arkansas congressman Brooks Hays appealed to President Dwight Eisenhower to send in federal troops to enforce the court’s order and prevent a catastrophe.

The president responded that day, ordering to Little Rock 1,100 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., a force Faubus denounced as “an army of occupation.”

With soldiers clearing the way for entry and protecting the black youngsters inside the school, Central High School was integrated.

But racist anger endured. And for many in that city, the men of the 101st Division, in their paratroop uniforms and jump boots, were seen as the embodiment of the enemy. It was the end of November before they were withdrawn.

Now, only a month later, foul weather had caused me to be deposited in full uniform in a strange town that had no use for soldiers of my kind.

And though the division in which I served — the 82nd Airborne — was a different one, the only thing that distinguished me from those despised troopers of the 101st was the unit patch on my sleeve. Same uniform. Same jump boots.

I took temporary refuge in a cafeteria while I thought about looking for a cheap place to spend the night. In the morning, Christmas Day, I could take a bus for the last leg home.

Few patrons were in the place that evening. Sitting by myself at a corner table, I thought I caught a disapproving look or two, but no ugly words were said.

Then a young couple I’d noticed, a man and woman not much older than I, walked over to my table.

“You look a little lost,” the fellow said.

“I had a flight home,” I told him. “The weather grounded us.”

“Where’s home?” his wife asked.

“Kansas City.”

“Look,” the man said, “we’re meeting some friends for a little party. Why don’t you come with us?”

They were the kind of folks you trusted immediately.

“Why not? I’d like to.”

It was a good gathering, young people all about the same age, at a big table in some kind of a club with strobe lights flashing and loud recorded music. Cheer flowed freely. The hour got late.

“Where are you sleeping?” my new friend called over the music.

“Maybe you could drop me at a motel.”

“Sure, or you could bed down at our place,” he said.

“It’s not a bed,” his wife said. “It’s a fold-out couch.”

So I spent the night at their apartment, and woke up to a Christmas morning breakfast. Then took a cab to the downtown bus station, and was at home in my parents’ house by late in the afternoon.

There’ve been a lot of Christmases since then. I’ve gotten very many wonderful gifts, although, in the blur of time, some of them I have forgotten.

But that gift of goodness — 48 years ago — I remember as if it were yesterday.