Turning point in Little Rock Clinton to help mark anniversary of Ark. school's integration

September 25, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton was born into a world where Arkansas state law and regional custom required whites and blacks to attend different schools, swimming pools, clubs, even churches.

He was no revolutionary, but those who knew him say that as a child and young man, Clinton was deeply troubled by the racial code of the Old South. Today, in his self-appointed role as moderator of a "national conversation" on race, the president will return home to commemorate a turning point in that era -- the forced integration of Little Rock Central High School.

Many believe that this is a role he has prepared for all his life.

"It's just so natural with him," said Ralph Neas, former head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "This has always been his top priority. In fact, he's said it himself: It's the primary reason he went into public service."

Today, in his second major address on the subject since spring, Clinton will mark the 40th anniversary of integration at Central High, a step that was achieved uneasily, at gunpoint, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower had called in federal troops to enforce a court order to integrate. Gov. Orval E. Faubus had defied the order and called out the Arkansas National Guard to help resist it.

"I will try to focus our nation on a haunting but hopeful moment in our country's struggle to make America the nation live up to America the idea," Clinton said yesterday. "A day 40 years ago when nine brave African-American boys and girls, shielded from a hateful crowd by Army paratroopers, walked through the doors at Little Rock Central High School for the first time."

Today, all nine of those students will come home to attend the ceremony and will re-stage their entry into the building.

"His mother told me that when they watched [the white resistance] on television, he said, 'You know, Mom, this is wrong' " recalled Thomas S. Williamson Jr., an African-American who became friends with Clinton at Oxford. "He was 11 years old."

At Central High, which is now 58 percent black, the president will be introduced by Fatima J. McKindra, who was the first African-American girl to serve as student body president. Ernest Green, now a manager at Lehman Bothers and a friend of Clinton, will speak on behalf of himself and the eight other students who integrated the school on Sept. 25, 1957.

Clinton is expected to use the occasion to warn that recent court decisions and referendums restricting affirmative action risk undoing the huge gains made by African-Americans in higher education in the past 40 years.

"There are still a lot of doors we have to open," he said yesterday. "There are still some doors we have to open wider. And now, unfortunately, there are some doors we've got to work hard to keep from being shut again."

For the president, this is hardly a new crusade. At age 16, Clinton was selected to be an Arkansas delegate to Boys Nation, a program in Washington sponsored by the American Legion. There, he was one of three Deep South delegates to lobby for an integration plank. The language of that plank, related in "First in His Class," David Maraniss' biography of Clinton, resonates even today.

"Racial discrimination is a cancerous disease and must be eliminated," Clinton's group wrote. "But legislation alone cannot change the hearts of men. Education is the primary tool."

The need to counter the dark impulses of the human heart was a theme invoked by Clinton both in his second inaugural address and in his remarks June 14, when, in a university commencement speech in California, he launched his current race initiative.

"He always knew his own heart was in the right place," said Williamson, who noted that as a young black man, he was struck by Clinton's ease not just in accepting him but in discussing the role of race in their friendship.

As young men, Clinton and Williamson were so eager to challenge existing racial assumptions that when hitchhiking, they would sometimes reverse the roles expected of them. A car would stop, Williamson recalled, and he would jump in the front, sometimes ordering Clinton in the back. Clinton, acting subserviently, would comply meekly.

Clinton himself credits his grandfather for originally teaching him that basic humanity transcends racial lines. "I saw him treat everyone, black and white, with equal dignity and respect," Clinton wrote recently.

Thomas Campbell, another college friend of Clinton, recalls going with Clinton in 1968 to hear a race-baiting Arkansas gubernatorial candidate named "Justice Jim" Johnson speak. Afterward, Campbell was astonished to hear his 21-year-old friend walk up to Johnson and say flatly, "You make me ashamed to be from Arkansas."

"He was just always progressive on this issue," Campbell said.

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