The surviving members of the Little Rock Nine and former President Bill Clinton marked the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School on Monday. The ceremony was replete with jabs at how far is left to go to achieve progress in the era of President Donald Trump and a state-controlled school district.
The mood was almost familial inside Central’s Roosevelt Thompson Auditorium with many of the same faces who also attended the 40th and 50th anniversary commemorations. This year though, with racial tensions high across the country and a state-run Little Rock School District besieged by state-approved charter schools, members of the Little Rock Nine harkened back to the calling that earned them worldwide renown in 1957.
“In the name of full disclosure it’s important that you know, I come here not to celebrate. Not that I don’t want to celebrate, but that the time has not yet come. For me, the balloons are in the closet; the confetti is stored away; the noisemakers, in every variety you can image, are waiting to make their noise. It’s been a 75 year wait for me,” said Dr. Terrance Roberts, one of the nine.
“I have a new vision that shows me what could possibly be. But it can’t happen, I can’t do it alone,” Roberts told the packed auditorium. “We all have to engage in this war against the forces that are determined to maintain the status quo.”
Ernest Green, the first of the group to graduate from Central, went to the heart of the matter.
“Progress has to continue, because there is no finish line. Emmett Till turns to Heather Heyer in Charlottesville protesting Nazi’s; Muhammad Ali turns to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee for injustice; and the Little Rock Nine turns to the Charleston Nine paying the ultimate sacrifice for peacefully assembling in a church.”
Green’s reference to Kapernick, which is on the minds of many after President Trump said NFL players should be fired for kneeling during the National Anthem, was hardly the only reference to the president made by these civil rights icons.
Carlotta Walls LaNier was even more direct. She said she’d preferred to have celebrated the 60th anniversary of Central’s desegregation in the White House with Hillary Clinton. But instead, LaNier finds herself living in an era that reminds her of the conflict-ridden days of her youth. She didn't refer to President Trump by name.
“Today we have number 45, who behind the scenes and through his Twitter account, we become as we were 60 years ago. Anxious, and concerned, and worried about what is ahead,” she said. “We know these things though, as a human race we are strong people. In the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘we have come too far to turn back now.”
Former Arkansas Governor and former President Bill Clinton delivered the keynote speech of the event. He too shifted from hailing the historic importance of this early moment in Civil Rights movement and the bravery of the nine school children to a focus on the ills of contemporary society.
“I wanted to say, ‘you did 60 years, do a victory lap, put on your dancing shoes and have a good time.’ But instead I have to say, ‘put on your marching boots and lead us again,’” said Clinton.
He brought the Little Rock Nine back together for the first time during his tenure as governor in 1987 and also led ceremonies for the 40th and 50th anniversary commemorations. Clinton also signed legislation making the high school a National Historic Site.
The former president urged society to look toward a spirit of cooperation. Throughout his remarks he frequently delved into the animal kingdom and examples of cooperative species like ants and termites that manage to thrive because they act together. He also recounted – briefly – the saga of human evolution, emphasizing the likeness of all members of the human race. Clinton said we now find ourselves in “dangerous times” and are looking at going back to “square one” regarding these basic questions.
“We’re back to tribalism and it’s sweeping the world. It’s entirely understandable and I think entirely predictable,” Clinton waxed. “When you have people that feel like they’ve been passed by economically, culturally, socially, and politically and they’re fed a steady diet of resentment and they don’t ever meet anybody different than them, or talk to anybody, then that’s the core of it.”
He warned of a society built on resentments rather than bridge building,
“Pretty soon somebody else says you can have your resentment, I want my resentment. My resentment’s more authentic than your resentment. Let’s fight about whose resentment is more authentic. And pretty soon somebody’s trying to keep you from voting or just erasing you from the polls… pretty soon another country thinks these people are so messed up, so torn up, so upset and full of resentment I’ll mess with their heads,” he said referring to Russian meddling the last election.
Clinton went on to extol virtues from several major religions. He lightly chastised anti-immigration sentiment by bringing up the parable of the Good Samaritan, saying the point is to help people you don’t traditionally consider your neighbor.
The crowd seemed to hang the most on a bit of Buddhist wisdom, “you’re not really alive unless you can feel the arrow pierce another person’s body as if it were entering your own,” he said to applause.
“What is the matter with us? I heard that rally in Alabama [referring to President Trump’s involvement in a Republican U.S. Senate primary] and I thought ‘oh my god, I’ve got to go to the Little Rock Nine and they’re down there talking in ways that you hadn’t heard since Geroge Corley Wallace was governor of Alabama.”
Clinton noted though that Wallace at least cast off his segregationist beliefs later in life and asked for forgiveness. Wallace was a four-time governor of Alabama, three-time Presidential candidate, and was paralyzed by would-be assassin.
Commentary on the present wasn’t limited to the White House. Minniejean Brown Trickey made a quick reference to state control of Little Rock schools and the proliferation of charter schools, “It always is about education. It was then and ever shall be about education. I’m hoping, and we’re not stupid the Little Rock Nine, we know what’s going on in this town – as Marvin Gaye said.”
Her remarks were followed by a more direct dig from Thelma Mothershed Wair. Her grandson Gabrielle spoke on her behalf.
“The proliferation of charter schools has given us a cause for concern for the future of conventional public education,” she said. “We must continue to be involved.”
Elizabeth Eckford noted it took her 30 years before she could talk about her time at Central. Gloria Ray Karlmark said it still makes her feel “uncomfortable” to be at Central but that the event made her feel good. Melba Patillo Beals gave glory to God for helping her through her time at Central and in the many years since. Several of the surviving nine referred to it as a pilgrimage akin to a religious experience.
This year also marked the first commemoration without Jefferson Thomas. He died in 2010. An empty chair with a gold and black sash, the school’s colors, was placed on stage with his peers.
Before the deluge of comments from the Little Rock Nine and former president, a number of elected officials, dignitaries, and the like offered their appreciation for these pioneers of the modern civil rights era.
Governor Asa Hutchinson hailed the nine as an inspiration to the civil rights movement of the 1960s that followed. He noted a young Martin Luther King, Jr. was in attendance during Ernest Green’s graduation ceremony at Central. Hutchinson, who helped champion through legislation to end the state’s dual celebration of Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, said Arkansas has a heritage of which to be proud.
“I want to thank the Little Rock Nine for enduring the pain,” said the Republican governor, “We are grateful as a state and nation for the difference you made for all of us. Arkansas claims you as pioneers, heroes, and as examples to follow.”
Hutchinson also said progress has made, noting that Central’s enrollment comprises students whose homes speak 27 different languages.
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola spoke as well. He too claimed progress and touted investments made south of Interstate 630. Stodola said it was a day of celebration but also a “reflective day” and a chance to “seize the opportunity” to complete unfinished work.
Cameron Sholly, the midwest regional director of the National Park Service, hailed the significance of Central High School and delivered a line that later speakers seemed to seize on, “It’s essential… that we translate the lessons and the sacrifices of the past into the dialogue of the present and the future.”
Harvard historian, filmmaker, and author Henry Louis Gates, Jr. opened the door for such conversation, according to former President Clinton’s keynote address. Gates concluded remarks by the non-nine and preceded speeches by the surviving members of the Little Rock Nine.
Gates said being in Central was like visiting a “religious shrine” that demanded he push back against a new form of darkness.
“We once again find ourselves in a struggle for freedom and justice in our land. In this moment, unimaginable for most of us just a year ago, we – those of us who love truth and justice beyond political party – have to draw a line in the sand as they drew a line in the sand 60 years ago. Then as now we must defend the right of every American to cast their vote for the candidate of their choice,” Gates said to applause.”
He went on to defend affirmative action and healthcare as a “right.” Gates continued, “We must link arms and stand publicly against anti-Semitism, against homophobia, against Islamophobia, against anti-black racism and ladies and gentleman against white supremacist ideology in all of its ugly and hateful forms.”
A number of conservative figures were in attendance during the remarks from members of the Little Rock Nine and others. After the event, KUAR asked Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin what his reaction was to Civil Rights leaders calling out President Trump and voting rights issues.
Martin is a Trump supporter, an advocate for voter ID laws, and helped ensure Arkansas was the only state to submit voter information to the President’s voter integrity commission. Martin briefly replied to a question for how he interpreted the speeches by saying, “What do you think?” Upon being asked again he said, “That’s a hateful and divisive question, and you’re a hateful and divisive person.”