Slowly, with heads held high, nine black adults climbed the steps of Central High School on Thursday, paused before a hushed crowd, then turned and, one by one, strode through doors held wide open for them by the governor of Arkansas and the president of the United States.
After 40 years, the Little Rock Nine now offered a new image in contrast to the indelible pictures of them, as teenagers, walking silently through seething white mobs, heading for the same schoolhouse door, having it shut in their faces.
The nine were celebrated as heroes on Thursday, four decades to the day after President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed federal troops to escort them, finally, into this city’s pre-eminent white school.
There was no more spit, no more jeering, no more threat of physical violence as thousands of children and adults, black and white, paid homage to their hometown civil rights pioneers.
“Most of us who have just watched these events unfold can never understand fully the sacrifice they made,” said President Clinton, who was 11 years old and living in nearby Hot Springs when the nine were struggling to attend school.
“Imagine, all of you, what it would be like to come to school one day and be shoved against lockers, tripped down stairways, taunted day after day by your classmates, to go all through school with no hope of going to a school play or being on a basketball team or learning in simple peace,” Clinton said.
Their perseverance against enormous obstacles - the white community, Southern tradition and a segregationist governor - “changed the course of our country,” Clinton said.
It was here, in 1957, that the federal government first enforced court-ordered desegregation, providing muscle to the budding civil rights movement and prompting much of America to take a closer look at itself.
“Before Little Rock, for me and other white children, the struggles of black people, whether we were sympathetic or hostile to them, were mostly background music in our normal, self-absorbed lives,” said Clinton, noting that he had attended segregated schools. “But then we saw what was happening in our own back yard, and we all had to deal with it. Where did we stand? What did we believe? How did we want to live?”
“It was Little Rock that made racial equality a driving obsession in my life,” said Clinton, a former Arkansas governor who in June launched a major initiative to improve race relations.
The change that took place since then was apparent, not just in the treatment of the now 50-somethings who are the Little Rock Nine, but in the several hundred teens who stood at their feet - black and white students who attend Central High today. As they came face to face with a history that set the course for their lives, the students cheered as the nine took their seats next to the President and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and, later, entered the schoolhouse doors.
“It took them a lot of courage to come here every day and face the negative words that were said to them. I give thanks to those people,” said Melinda Doaks, 16, who is African American.
Though the school has come under fire recently because segregation remains in some classrooms and lunchrooms, Doaks stood arm-in-arm with one of her best friends, Alisha Knapp, who is white.
Thursday’s commemoration, august as it was before the building once described as the country’s most beautiful school, was not only a celebration of nine people or the civil rights gains of the past 40 years. It also was a chance for a community to come to grips with its past and, Clinton stressed, for a nation to make decisions about its future.
Little Rock’s reaction to desegregation was a shameful reflection of Southern whites and their churches, said Gov. Mike Huckabee, who gave the day’s sharpest condemnation.
“Essentially, it’s not just a skin problem, it’s a sin problem,” he said. “Because we in Arkansas have wandered around in ambiguity, all kinds of explanations and justifications, and I think today we come to say once and for all that what happened here 40 years ago was simply wrong. It was evil. And we renounce it.”
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