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Clinton to hold door for 'Little Rock Nine'

fight September 25, 1997
Web posted at: 1:12 p.m. EDT (1312 GMT)

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (CNN) -- President Clinton Thursday will hold open a Little Rock schoolhouse door so nine black former students can enter, in a powerful symbolic repudiation of one of the ugliest incidents in U.S. civil rights history.

Clinton is to speak at Central High School in Little Rock, which was desegregated September 25, 1957, under the presence of Army troops sent to enforce a court order in a historic test of the Constitution.

vxtreme CNN's Charles Zewe Reports
video icon  Little Rock's Central High School Integration
672K/32 sec. QuickTime slideshow
Little Rock picture gallery

At a ceremony commemorating the event, Clinton will honor the nine black students who were taunted and spat upon by a white mob when they attended school, and who have come to embody the struggle against racism.

Clinton will be accompanied by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose 1957 predecessor, Orval Faubus, called out the National Guard to try to block integration four decades ago.

"That's when I knew that they were just not going to let me go to school ... that they were not there to protect me, too, like the other students," remembers Elizabeth Eckford, one of the "Little Rock Nine." She was 15 at the time.

Instead, Guardsmen turned Eckford toward dozens of rabid hecklers. Among them was Hazel Bryan Massery. "I was behind her and the crowd was jeering saying: 'go home nigger ... go back to Africa' and things like that," Massery recalls.

A L S O :

1957 + 40: In their own words

U.S. race relations: Then, now and beyond

Nineteen days later, the nine tried again but were driven out by the mob. Still photographer Will Counts, who nearly won a Pulitzer Prize for his shot of black reporter Alex Wilson being kicked, recalls "They were yelling: 'Run, nigger, run.' And he said: 'I fought for my country in the war and I'm not running from you' -- and he didn't."

picture strip

The Little Rock crisis was the first time the federal government had enforced court-ordered integration. It took 1,200 troops of the 101st Airborne division, sent by President Dwight Eisenhower, to accomplish the task.

Eisenhower's action in the showdown set the stage for school desegregation programs across America.

Ernest Green was among that first handful of black students. "Victory was at hand. I thought I had finally cracked it," he recalls.

It was a victory indeed, and it marked the first time that the federal government used its full power in enforcing the desegregation laws of the land.

At Central High these days, Melba Patillo Beals, a member of the "Nine" who now teaches at the school, gets hugs. But 40 years ago, she was beaten, stabbed and cursed daily by white students. The harassment went so far that acid was thrown in her eyes.

"I had to become a warrior. I had to learn not how to dress the best but how to get from that door to the end of the hall without dying," she told CNN.

Today 60 percent attending the school are African Americans.

Beal's hug

And yet, these figures can be deceiving. While students co-exist, they seldom socialize. "Racism in today's society is still there ... it's still a prevalent problem," said Student Body President Fatima McKindra.

But this Thursday, Little Rock will be seeking redemption for an ugly chapter in its history.

Massery apologized to Eckford 35 years ago, and she tells still-resentful whites "if you had been born black, if that had been you, you'd feel the same way wouldn't you?"

But so far, she has been the only white person in Little Rock to say publicly that she's sorry.

Correspondent Charles Zewe and Reuters contributed to this report.


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