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Full Text Of President Clinton's Remarks Honoring Little Rock Nine

Sep. 25, 1997, Little, Rock, Ark., Central High School

FDCH Transcripts

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Governor and Mrs. Huckabee; Mayor and Mrs. Dailey; my good friend Daisy Bates (ph); and the families of Wiley Branton (ph) and Justice Thurgood Marshall; to the co-chairs of this event; Mr. Howard and all the faculty and staff here at Central High; to Fatima and her fellow students...

(APPLAUSE)

... to all my fellow Americans, Hillary and I are glad to be home, especially on this day. And we thank you for your welcome.

(APPLAUSE)

I would also be remiss if I did not say one other word, just as a citizen.

You know, we just sent our daughter off to college, and for eight-and-a-half years, she got a very good education in the Little Rock school district, and I want to thank you all for that.

(APPLAUSE)

On this beautiful sunshiney day, so many wonderful words have already been spoken with so much conviction I am reluctant to add to them. But I must ask you to remember once more and ask yourselves, what does what happened here 40 years ago mean today? What does it tell us, most importantly, about our children's tomorrows?

Forty years ago, a single image first seared the heart and stirred the conscience of our nation.

So powerful, most of us who saw it then recall it still.

A 15 year-old girl, wearing a crisp black and white dress, carrying only a notebook, surrounded by large crowds of boys and girls, men and women, soldiers and police officers. Her head held high, her eyes fixed straight ahead. And she is utterly alone.

On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford walked through this door for her first day of school, utterly alone. She was turned away by people who were afraid of change, instructed by ignorance, hating what they simply could not understand.

And America saw her haunted and taunted for the simple color of her skin. And in the image, we caught a very disturbing glimpse of ourselves.

We saw not one nation under God, individual, with liberty and justice for all, but two Americas divided and unequal. What happened here changed the course of our country forever.

Like Independence Hall, where we first embraced the idea that God created us all equal; like Gettysburg where Americans fought and died over whether we would remain one nation moving closer to the true meaning of equality; like them, Little Rock is historic ground, for surely it was here at Central High that we took another giant step closer to the idea of America.

Elizabeth Eckford, along with her eight school mates, were turned away on September 4th, but the Little Rock Nine did not turn back.

Forty years ago today, they climbed these steps, passed through this door and moved our nation. And for that, we must all thank them.

(APPLAUSE)

Today, we honor those who made it possible, their parents first. As Eleanor Roosevelt said of them, to give your child for a cause is even harder than to give yourself. To honor my friend Daisy Bates (ph) and Willy (ph) Branton and Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP and all who guided these children.

To honor President Eisenhower, Attorney General Brownell and the men of the 101st Airborne who enforced the constitution; to honor every student, every teacher, every minister, every Little Rock resident, black or white, who offered a word of kindness, a glance of respect or a hand of friendship; to honor those who gave us the opportunity to be part of this day, a celebration and rededication.

But most of all, we come to honor the Little Rock Nine. Most of who just watched these events unfold can never understand fully the sacrifice they made. 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.

Speaking of simple peace, I'd like a little of it today.

(APPLAUSE)

I want all the children here to look at these people. They persevered, they endured, and they prevailed, but it was at great cost to themselves. As Melba said years later in her wonderful memoir, "Warriors Don't Cry," my friends and I paid for the integration of Little Rock Central High with our innocence.

Folks, in 1957, I was 11-years-old, living 50 miles away in Hot Springs, when the eyes of the world were fixed here. Like almost all Southerners then, I never attended school with a person of another race until I went to college.

But as a young boy in my grandfather's small grocery store, I learned lessons that nobody bothered to teach me in my segregated school. My grandfather had a sixth-grade education from a tiny, rural school. He never a bit of money, but in that store and the way he treated his customers and encouraged me to play with their children, I learned America's most profound lessons: We really are all equal, we really do have the right to live in dignity, we really do have the right to be treated with respect, we do have the right to be heard.

I never knew how he and my grandmother came to those convictions, but I'll never forget how they lived them. Ironically, my grandfather died in 1957.

He never lived to see America come around to his way of thinking, but I know he's smiling down today not on his grandson, but on the Little Rock Nine, who gave up their innocence so all good people could have a chance to live their dreams.

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Copyright © 1997 Federal Document Clearing House





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