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Clinton Honors Little Rock Nine
President recalls their sacrifice, seeks rededication to racial progress
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AllPolitics, Sep. 25) -- Forty years ago armed paratroopers escorted nine black students past an angry crowd into Central High School. Today President Bill Clinton opened the school's front doors for the Little Rock Nine again and honored them for the sacrifices they made toward racial progress in America.
Before standing at the doors to shake their hands, Clinton delivered an impassioned speech celebrating that historic moment four decades ago and seeking a rededication to solving the thorny problem of race in America. "Forty years ago, they climbed these steps, passed through this door and moved our nation," said Clinton. "For that we must all thank them."
Under a brilliant blue sky, Clinton praised the Little Rock Nine and their parents, extolled the value of a good education, and called for action to improve the future for America's children. (576K wav sound)
The day was a sign of how far the country has come, and a reminder of how far it has yet to go. "Forty years later," said the president, "we know there are still more doors to be opened, doors to be opened wider, doors we have to keep from being shut again now." (416K wav sound)
"Forty years later, we know the question of race is more complex and more important than ever," he said. " ... Forty years later, frankly, we know we are bound to come back where we started. After all the weary years and silent tears, after all the stony roads and bitter rods, the question of race is, in the end, still an affair of the heart." (256K wav sound)
A different crowd gathers at Central High
The scene outside Central High School today was quite different than 40 years ago. The jeers of the angry crowd had been traded for applause; the scowls of white teenagers were exchanged for smiles; and an enthusiastic crowd of blacks and whites, basking in the words of a hometown hero, sat in front of the yellow-brick school.
"I want all the children here to look at these people," said Clinton. "They persevered, they endured, and they prevailed, but it was at a great cost to themselves ... Like so many Americans, I can never fully repay my debt to these nine people, because, with their innocence, they purchased more freedom for me, too, and for all white people." (320K wav sound)
Clinton called for Americans to reconcile, to forgive and to pay attention to the facts today. "There are still too many places where opportunity for education and work are not equal, where disintegration of family and neighborhood make it more difficult," he said. " ... But we know this, too, can be changed, but only if we are prepared to do what it takes. Today children of every race walk through the same door, But then they often walk down different halls." (448K wav sound)
Little Rock crisis shaped Clinton's views
The Little Rock crisis marked the first time the federal government had enforced court-ordered desegregation. In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower sent 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division to protect the black students and escort them into the school, whose student body today is 60 percent black.
Clinton was 11 years old when Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to defy a federal order to integrate Central High, a dark blotch in Arkansas' history. Back then, thanks to Clinton's grandparents' progressive views on race, he knew Faubus was wrong, and that early lesson in race relations has stuck with Clinton for the past 40 years. "It was Little Rock," he said, "that made racial equality a driving obsession in my life."
Three months ago, the president, his eyes turning toward his presidential legacy rather than the next election, launched a nationwide call for a year-long dialogue on race relations. His hope is to mend the wounds of racial division that have long divided the country.
One America: 'A seamless garment of destiny'
Clinton grew up in the segregated South -- he attended segregated schools, splashed in segregated pools, traveled through towns with "white" and "colored" water fountains. But he found ways to reach across the color line, and owed much of his early electoral success to the support of black voters in Arkansas.
Quoting Martin Luther King Jr. -- "We are woven into a seamless garment of destiny" -- Clinton called for Americans to make the country "one America." "We cannot have one America for free," he said, "not 40 years ago, not today. We have to act. All of us have to act, each of us has to do something, especially our young people must seek out people who are different from themselves and speak freely and frankly to discover they share the same dreams." (512K wav sound)
In Other News:
Thursday Sept. 25, 1997
Clinton Honors Little Rock Nine
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