Full Text Of President Clinton's Remarks Honoring Little Rock Nine
Sep. 25, 1997, Little, Rock, Ark., Central High School
CLINTON: But let me tell you something else that was true about that time. Before Little Rock, for me and other white children, the struggles of black people, whether we were sympathetic or hostile to them, were mostly background music in our normal, self-absorbed lives. We were all, like you, more concerned about our friends and our lives day in and day out. But then we saw what was happening in our own backyard, and we all had to deal with it. Where did we stand? What did we believe? How did we want to live? It was Little Rock that made racial equality a driving obsession in my life.
Years later, time and chance made Ernie Green my friend. Good fortune brought me to the governor's office, where I did all I could to heal the wounds, solve the problems, open the doors, so we could become the people we say we want to be.
Ten years ago the Little Rock Nine came back to the governor's mansion when I was there. I wanted them to see that the power of office that once had blocked their way now welcomed them. But like so many Americans, I can never fully repay my debt to these nine people. For with their innocence, they purchased more freedom for me, too, and for all white people, people like Hazel Bryan Massery (ph), the angry taunter of Elizabeth Eckford, who stood with her in front of this school this week as a reconciled friend.
And with the gift of their innocence, they taught us that all too often what ought to be can never be for free.
Forty years later, what do you young people in this audience believe we have learned? Well, 40 years later we know that we all benefit, all of us, when we learn together, work together and come together. That is, after all, what it means to be an American. Forty years later. We know, notwithstanding some cynics, that all our children can learn, and this school proves it.
Forty years later, we know when the Constitutional rights of our citizens are threatened, the national government must guarantee them. Talk is fine, but when they are threatened, you need strong laws, faithfully enforced and upheld by independent courts.
Forty years later 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.
Forty years later we know freedom and equality cannot be realized without responsibility for self, family and the duties of citizenship, or without a commitment to building a community of shared destiny, and a genuine sense of belonging.
Forty years later, we know the question of race is more complex and more important than ever, embracing no longer just blacks and whites, or blacks and whites and Hispanics and Native Americans, but now people from all parts of the earth coming here to redeem the promise of America.
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.
... if these are lessons, what do we have to do? First, we must all reconcile. Then, we must all face the facts of today, and finally, we must act. Reconciliation is important not only those who practice bigotry but to those whose resentment of it lingers, for both are prisons from which our spirits must escape.
If Nelson Mandela, who paid for the freedom of his people with 27 of the best years of his life, could invite his jailers to his inauguration and ask even the victims of violence to forgive their oppressors, then each of us can seek and give forgiveness.
And what are the facts?
It is a fact, my fellow Americans, that 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.
But it is also a fact that schools and neighborhoods and lives can be turned around, if -- but only if -- we are prepared to do what it takes. It is a fact that there are still too many places where our children die or give up before they bloom, where they are trapped in a web of crime and violence and drugs.
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.
Not only in this school but across America, they sit in different classrooms, they eat at different tables, they even sit in different parts of the bleachers at the football game. Far too many communities are all white, all black, all Latino, all Asian.
Indeed, too many Americans of all races have actually begun to give up on the idea of integration and the search for common ground. For the first time since the 1950s, our schools in America are resegregating.
The roll back of affirmative action is slamming shut the doors of higher education on a new generation while those who oppose have not yet put forward any other alternative.
In so many ways, we still hold ourselves back. We retreat into the comfortable enclaves of ethnic isolation. We just don't deal with people who are different from us. Segregation is no longer the law, but too often separation is still the rule.
And we cannot forget one stubborn fact that has not yet been said as clearly as it should.
There is still discrimination in America.
There are still people who can't get over it, who can't let it go, who can't go through the day unless they have somebody else to look down on. And it manifests itself in our streets and in our neighborhoods, and in the workplace, and in the schools. And it is wrong. And we have to keep working on it, not just with our voices, but with our laws. And we have to engage each other in it.
Of course we should celebrate our diversity, the marvelous blends of cultures and beliefs and races has always enriched America, and it is our meal ticket to the 21st century, but we also have to remember with the painful lessons of the civil wars and the ethnic cleansing around the world, that any nation that indulges itself in destructive separatism, will not be able to meet and master the challenges of the 21st century.
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