Photo: President Clinton speaks at the opening of the Little Rock Nine exhibition at the Clinton Presidential Center in February 2011. Eight of the surviving members of the Little Rock Nine join President Clinton on stage.
As Black History Month comes to a close, we reflect on an historic moment of the civil rights movement and the story of the Little Rock Nine. On September 25, 1957, nine African American students in Little Rock, Arkansas, enrolled in the Little Rock Central High School. Due to their courageous efforts, these students were able to help integrate Little Rock Central High School. President Clinton reflected on the significance of the event during the 50th anniversary. Excerpts from his speech are below.
Fifty years, for those of us of a certain age, how quickly they pass. The memory of that day is as vivid to me as this afternoon's rain. The Little Rock Nine, by going through the doors of Central High School, opened the doors of equal opportunity and quality education to millions of others, and they opened the eyes and hearts of many of their fellow Americans who did not share their race, their oppression, or at the moment, their courage, including one 11 year old white boy who lived only 50 miles away and was rooting for them.
Tonight we have much to be grateful for, and I think we ought to start with that. Look at them: Carlotta, Ernest, Jefferson, Melba, Minnijean, Elizabeth, Gloria, Terrence, and Thelma. Fifty years later, they are all still here with us, and I am grateful.
We thank God for that, even as we remember L.C. and Daisy Bates, their other supporters, and their parents, of whom only three remain. They are all up here on this dais, and we're proud of them. I am thankful for the lives they have lived. Not just for the good civic things they have done, but for the fact that they survived, they got an education, and they lived real lives. They weren't frozen mummies, two-dimensional icons. These people had real lives. Lives of joy and heartbreak, of success and disappointment, of love and loss. Brave lives. And yet throughout all those lives, there was a common thread, because on that fateful day, they answered the call of conscience. You heard them interviewed; they dared to dream that the American dream belonged to them, too.
I am thankful for the progress that African Americans and other minorities have made in America because of them. Sometime during my Presidency, for the first time in history, high school graduation rates between blacks and whites almost evened up. We know about the astonishing success of African Americans in business, and the professions, and politics. In 2008 we see the rainbow of America. We see a serious African American candidate for President, a serious Hispanic candidate for President, and yes, I think a pretty serious female candidate for President. They had a role in that, too.
I am personally grateful for the gift of knowing them. Because of his role in President Carter's Administration, Ernie Green and I have been friends for 30 years. Twenty years ago, on the 30th anniversary, it was my great honor as governor of this state to bring the Little Rock Nine back to the Governor's Mansion, and to take them into the rooms where a previous governor had planned the whole operation to keep them out of Central High School. I thought it was a sweet memory to see them sit around the table. They not only got to go to school, they wound up occupying the building where the planning had occurred.
I am thankful for what happened 10 years ago, when, as President, I could speak to that great crowd and hold the doors with the governor open for them to go through. And eight years ago, when they came to the South Lawn of the White House, thanks to Senator Bumpers and our other congressional delegation members, to get the Congressional Gold Medal. These people have enriched my life. I'm glad they got a good education. They deserved it. They are smart. They are insightful. They are courageous. And when life has gotten them down, they have gotten right back up again. Every time I see them, they remind me that all over America and all over the world, there are millions of children just like them who may not yet have the opportunity they risked so much to seize.
President Clinton gave this speech on September 24, 2007 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Photo credit: Nelson Chenault