60 Years Later, Remembering The Little Rock Nine And School Integration

Sep 25, 2017
Originally published on September 25, 2017 9:21 pm
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Sixty years ago today, federal troops forced the integration of Little Rock Central High School.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

SIEGEL: A segregationist governor and angry protesters tried to block nine African-American students from attending all-white Central High, so President Dwight Eisenhower sent in Army paratroopers to escort the black teens to class.


DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.

SIEGEL: Members of the Little Rock Nine were back at Central High today along with NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Sixty years after being yelled at, spit on, taunted and at times physically attacked, members of the Little Rock Nine were welcomed with a standing ovation as they took the stage of Central High's packed auditorium.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the Little Rock Nine.

ELLIOTT: Eight are still living, all now in their 70s. An empty chair was draped in the school's black and gold in memory of the ninth, the late Jefferson Thomas. Historian Henry Louis Gates marked the occasion, likening Central High to a religious shrine.


HENRY LOUIS GATES: And if this is a shrine, ladies and gentlemen, these are the saints that we are here to honor.


ELLIOTT: Each had an opportunity to reflect. Gloria Ray Karlmark recalled the last day of school and a classmate's inscription in her yearbook.


GLORIA RAY KARLMARK: She wrote, in a different age, we could've been friends.

ERNEST GREEN: None of us 60 years ago as we arrived in the back of Army jeeps knew that we would be standing here today.

ELLIOTT: Ernest Green was the first to earn a diploma from Central High. He says they didn't aspire to make history but were simply pursuing a constitutional education. Melba Pattillo Beals talked about how much different things are today than when she was a child in Little Rock.


MELBA PATTILLO BEALS: It's a joy to come back to Arkansas and sit in a taxi. It's a joy to see women policemen, who are - whose skin is all sorts of colors.

ELLIOTT: Here to honor the legacy of the Little Rock Nine is former president and former governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton. In keynote remarks at the ceremony, he said the group made a great sacrifice for the nation.


BILL CLINTON: All they wanted to do was to live their lives and be a part of America.

ELLIOTT: Clinton says today the country is in jeopardy because of the politics of resentment.


CLINTON: So I wanted to say, you did 60 years. Take a victory lap. Put on your dancing shoes. Have a good time. But instead I have to say, you've got to put on your marching boots and lead us again.


ELLIOTT: The theme of this anniversary event, reflections on progress, has drawn some backlash from parents and others who say Little Rock schools have re-segregated. The state has taken over the local school system, and there's been a proliferation of charter schools some fear pull resources from traditional classes. Little Rock Judge Wendell Griffen...

WENDELL GRIFFEN: I'm not denying that what they did 60 years ago was not only historic and courageous but was radically revolutionarily progressive. My point is that this community, this state, this nation has not kept faith with their sacrifice.

ELLIOTT: Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine says the work has to continue because there are new civil rights battles today.


GREEN: Emmett Till turns to Heather Heyer in Charlottesville protesting Nazis. Muhammad Ali turns to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee for injustice.


GREEN: And the Little Rock Nine turns to the Charleston nine paying the ultimate sacrifice for peacefully assembling in a church.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Little Rock, Ark.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Lift every voice, and sing.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies. Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Lift every voice, and sing. Lift every voice, and sing a song. Lift every voice, and sing a song full of... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.