Former President Clinton said that 50 years after nine black student integrated Little Rock Central, the world is still struggling with the “unfinished legacy” of looking past race, ethnicity and other differences.
“It is easy to celebrate the courage of others for what they did 50 years ago. It is another thing all together to build the world our children would like to live in 50 years from now,” Clinton said as he shared a stage with the Little Rock Nine.
Clinton said that he rooted for the nine black students in 1957, though he was an 11-year-old boy living 50 miles away in Hot Springs.
“The Little Rock Nine, by going through the doors of Central High School, opened the doors for equal opportunity and quality education for millions of other,” Clinton told a crowd of about 1,300 people at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock. “They dared to dream that the American dream belonged to them too.”
The Little Rock Nine Foundation also awarded scholarships to nine college students Monday night. Each of the students will receive $10,000 over two years and a laptop, as well a mentor from among the Little Rock Nine.
The audience at the Statehouse Convention Center included retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and former Arkansas Gov. Dale Bumpers.
Jackson drew a parallel between the integration crisis and the arrest of six black students in Jena, La., over the beating of a white classmate. Their arrest drew thousands to the small southern town in a protest likened to the marches of the civil rights movement.
“There’s an unbroken line from Little Rock to the Jena Six,” Jackson told The Associated Press in an interview. “While there’s been progress, there’s still an undercurrent of inequality.”
The nine received standing applause twice during the reception when they entered the banquet hall and during a viewing of a short documentary about the 1957 crisis. Gov. Mike Beebe said during the program that the courage of the nine students was even more impressive because of their age 50 years ago.
“These men and women were babies. They truly were children,” Beebe said. “To gather the courage and perform in the fashion they did, as children, makes the whole episode that much more remarkable.”
Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the Little Rock Nine and president of their foundation, said she didn’t know any of the other students when they integrated the school in 1957 but said they are now her lifelong friends.
“Many have called our actions courageous, but we simply wanted to go to school,” LaNier said.
Clinton, whose wife, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the diversity of the presidential race shows how far the country has come. The Democratic candidates including Barack Obama, who is black, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic.
“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, a pretty serious female candidate,” Clinton said.
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