President leads ceremony honoring Little Rock Nine Clinton laments lingering voluntary racial segregation

September 26, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Decades after their bid to enter an all-white school sparked one of the most volatile state-federal conflicts since the Civil War, nine black men and women scaled the steps of Little Rock Central High once again.

But unlike the day in 1957 when the "Little Rock Nine" were greeted by a violent, spitting mob outside the school, yesterday the mayor, governor and president of the United States showed up to welcome them as heroes.

"Forty years ago, they climbed these steps, passed through this door, and moved our nation," President Clinton told cheering onlookers, most born long after an Arkansas governor had deployed the National Guard in a futile effort to block integration of the imposing, five-story school.

"And for that we must all thank them."

At the emotional ceremony, Clinton -- a former Arkansas governor -- and others tried to sum up the lasting significance of the students' efforts.

"If one young person out there has seen the story of the Little Rock Nine and can take from it a belief that he or she can open a door, succeed against the odds then the Little Rock Nine become the Little Rock 10, the 10 hundred, the 10,000, the 10 million," said Ernest G. Green, who after entering Central went to college at Michigan State University and today is managing director of the Lehman Bros. investment firm in Washington.

In 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus temporarily blocked the nine from enrolling at Central by calling out the National Guard, an act of brazen defiance that prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to respond with 1,200 Army paratroopers from Fort Campbell, Ky.

Clinton cautioned that the nation's schools are again becoming segregated and lamented that students separate themselves by race in cafeterias and at sporting events.

Clinton was an 11-year-old living in Hot Springs, he recalled, "self-absorbed" in his own life, when the explosive events 50 miles away forced him to think seriously about civil rights because "we saw what was happening in our own back yard, and we all had to deal with it."

"It was Little Rock," Clinton went on, "that made racial equality a driving obsession in my life.

"I want all these children here to look at these people," he continued, nodding toward the nine guests of honor, all in their mid-50s, who were seated nearby. "They persevered. They endured. And they prevailed. But it was at great cost to themselves."

Members of local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People boycotted yesterday's event, saying a festive flavor was inappropriate in light of continuing problems for blacks in Little Rock.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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