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Central High anniversary has living history lesson

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–Exactly 40 years after the “Little Rock Nine” were escorted up the steps of Central High School by armed federal troops, the nine gathered at the same site Sept. 25 to commemorate four decades of public school integration.
Rather than armed guards and jeering crowds, however, the nine were greeted by President Bill Clinton, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Little Rock mayor Jim Dailey.
Following speeches by Clinton, Huckabee, Little Rock Nine member Ernest Green and others, the nine former students again climbed the front steps of the historic school. This time the doors to the school were opened wide by the three political leaders amid cheers and applause from a crowd of several thousand onlookers.
“What does what happened here 40 years ago mean today?” Clinton asked. “What does it tell us, most importantly, about our children’s tomorrows?”
Noting “we saw not one nation under God … but two Americas, divided and unequal,” the former governor added, “What happened here changed the course of our country forever. … The Little Rock Nine did not turn back. Forty years ago today, they climbed these steps, passed through this door and moved our nation. And for that, we must thank them.”
Clinton emphasized the nine black students “persevered. They endured. They prevailed. But it was at great cost to themselves.” He said the nine “gave up their innocence so all good people could have a chance to live their dreams.”
Insisting “we really are all equal,” the president said “we really do have the right to live in dignity. We really do have the right to be treated with respect. We do have the right to be heard.”
Acknowledging there is still much to be done in the area of race relations, Clinton said, “After all the weary years and silent tears, after all the stony roads and bitter rides, the question of race is, in the end, still an affair of the heart.
“First, we must all reconcile,” he declared. “then we must all face the facts of today. And finally we must act. … Each of us can seek and give forgiveness.”
According to Central High principal Rudolph Howard, the Little Rock Nine will be remembered as “courageous students who threw the first punch in knocking down the wall of segregation.” He told the honorees they have “given us a vision, a picture in our minds, of how the world can be.”
Green, the first black student to graduate from Central High, said “despite our differences, we are much more fundamentally alike than different.” Green asked, “How have we gotten to the place where we have grown so far apart?”
Invoking such names as Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., Green said, “If I have learned anything in life, it is that this life is not about comfort levels.” Although “the road we have chosen has been long and oft times lined with stones,” he added, “We have tried to live honorably.”
Citing attempts 40 years ago “to suffocate our spirits,” he said, “Although the journey has not been without pain, it has been well worth it.”
Affirming “we come to confront the pain of the past, to celebrate the perseverance of some very courageous people and to continue the path to prosperity,” Gov. Huckabee emphasized racism “is not just a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.”
“We come to say once and for all that what happened here 40 years ago was simply wrong,” he declared. “It was evil and we renounce it,” he said of the three-week standoff prior to Central’s forced integration.
Huckabee, a former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, also voiced concern “in many parts of the South it was the white churches that helped not only ignore the problems of racism, but in many cases actually fostered those feelings and sentiments.” He called on “every church, every pulpit, every synagogue, every mosque in every part of Arkansas and the rest of the world to say never, never, never again will we be silent when people’s rights are at stake.”
Although “we’ve come a long way in 40 years…we’re not home yet,” Huckabee added. “We celebrate the progress, but now we must navigate the future.
“Government can do some things, but only God can change people’s hearts,” he declared.
“Only God can give us the power to love each other and respect each other and share life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with every American.”

    About the Author

  • Trennis Henderson

    Trennis Henderson is the national correspondent for WMU (Woman’s Missionary Union). A Baptist journalist for more than 35 years, Henderson is a former editor of the Western Recorder of the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Arkansas Baptist News state convention newsjournal.

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