Clinton to hold door for 'Little Rock Nine'
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.
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 :
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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."
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
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.
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.