Little Rock, Ark. — Among the most lasting and indelible images of the civil rights movement were the nine black teenagers who had to be escorted by federal troops past an angry white mob and through the doors of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Sept. 25, 1957.
It had been three years since the Supreme Court had declared “separate but equal” in America’s public schools unconstitutional, but the decision was met with bitter resistance across the South. It would take more than a decade before the last vestiges of Jim Crow fell away from classrooms. Even the brave sacrifice of the “Little Rock Nine” felt short-lived — rather than allow more black students and further integration, the district’s high schools closed the following school year.
A ceremony Monday marked the 60th anniversary of the integration of Central High. Former President Bill Clinton told surviving members of the Little Rock Nine on Monday that they could wear dancing shoes to celebrate their integration of Central High School but must be ready to don marching boots as struggles for equality continue.
Inside the school’s auditorium,Clinton said the world had returned to a “tribalism” that must be overcome.
“The answer to everything went to ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ That’s why democracy requires diversity and debate,” Clinton, who is also a former Arkansas governor, said in a half-hour address.
Eight of the people who integrated Central High under that military escort are still alive. Jefferson Thomas died in 2010, and on Monday an empty seat stood amid the group, beneath a sash of black and old gold — the school’s colors.
“I feel like I’m visiting a religious shrine,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. of the Hutchins Center at Harvard, told the crowd of 2,000. “This is a shrine. These are the saints.”
Then-Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, saying he feared violence, ringed the school with National Guard troops to keep the black children out. President Dwight Eisenhower sent units from the 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, to enforce a 1954 Supreme Court order that schools integrate “with all deliberate speed.”
Ernest Green was the only senior high schooler among the Little Rock Nine. On May 25, 1958, he earned a diploma and became the school’s first black graduate. Green has a bachelor’s degree in social science and a master’s in sociology from Michigan State University, plus honorary doctorates from Central State University, Michigan State and Tougaloo College.
In an interview, Green recalled his time at Little Rock Central High was “like going to war every day.”
Current Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday praised the students for their courage, fortitude and persistence.
“The bravery of youth inspired hope for all whose dreams had been crushed by an unfair system,” he said.
In his keynote address, Clinton said the lessons of the Little Rock Nine went beyond white and black.
“You taught us that in economics and in social policy and in politics, addition is better than subtraction, and multiplication is better than division,” Clinton said. “So, celebrate today. Put on your dancing shoes, but tomorrow … tomorrow, we need you again. Put on your marching boots.”
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