LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Former President Bill Clinton told surviving members of the Little Rock Nine on Monday that they could wear dancing shoes to celebrate their integration of Central High School but must be ready to don marching boots as struggles for equality continue.
Inside the school’s auditorium — 60 years after nine black students had to be escorted by troops past an angry white mob to enter the previously all-white high school — Clinton said the world had returned to a “tribalism” that must be overcome.
“The answer to everything went to ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ That’s why democracy requires diversity and debate,” Clinton, who is also a former Arkansas governor, said in a half-hour address.
Eight of the people who integrated Central High under a military escort Sept. 25, 1957, are still alive. Jefferson Thomas died in 2010, and on Monday an empty seat stood amid the group, beneath a sash of black and old gold — the school’s colors.
“I feel like I’m visiting a religious shrine,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. of the Hutchins Center at Harvard, told the crowd of 2,000. “This is a shrine. These are the saints.”
Then-Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, saying he feared violence, ringed the school with National Guard troops to keep the black children out. President Dwight Eisenhower sent units from the 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, to enforce a 1954 Supreme Court order that schools integrate “with all deliberate speed.”
Current Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday praised the students for their courage, fortitude and persistence.
“The bravery of youth inspired hope for all whose dreams had been crushed by an unfair system,” he said.
In his keynote address, Clinton said the lessons of the Little Rock Nine went beyond white and black.
“You taught us that in economics and in social policy and in politics, addition is better than subtraction, and multiplication is better than division,” Clinton said. “So, celebrate today. Put on your dancing shoes, but tomorrow … tomorrow, we need you again. Put on your marching boots.”
While Monday’s ceremony commemorated the students’ first day of school, Gloria Ray Karlmark spoke briefly about the final day of the 1957-58 school year.
“Nobody ever asks about the last day,” she said. “On the last day of school, they handed out the yearbooks. … I had my book and I knew people signed each other’s books, but there I was, now a 15-year-old little girl, and ‘Who was going to sign my book? Who would I dare go up to and ask to sign my book?’
“I sat there for a while with my book open and then Becky, a girl I had secretly exchanged notes with, she came up and signed my book. But then another girl came and signed my book. She wrote, ‘In a different age, we could have been friends.'”