TODAY,, HEROES: The surviving eight of the Little Rock Nine, on stage at Central High today. Brian Chilson

The 60th anniversary of desegregation of Little Rock Central High School was lavishly recalled this morning with a ceremony featuring the eight surviving members of the Little Rock Nine, former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Mayor Mark Stodola and many other speakers.

Leslie Peacock will be along with more coverage. I note that Mayor Mark Stodola, in his welcoming remarks, ran through his weekly newsletter. The city has made progress, it has more work to be done.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson
, who appointed the state education commissioner and the majority of the state Board of Education, which now control the Little Rock School District after the ouster of a majority black school board, also welcomed the crowd.


He lauded the Little Rock Nine for their determination and success in changing an “unfair” system. He noted that the Little Rock Central student body of 2018 will look quite different than that of 1958. He didn’t give the number — 18 percent white today against 99.percent white in 1958 (only Ernest Green was a senior.) The Nine confronted hostility, the unknown and a defiant governor. Today, he urged people to work toward a “more civil society.”

The nation must be constant, he said, in educating the current generation about tolerance and forgiveness. “May God have his continuing blessing on the Little Rock Nine,” he concluded.


Those in varying roles included Dr. Sybil Hampton, the first African-American to attend Central for all high school years and graduate; a pastor who was among the first to desegregate Little Rock junior high schools, and two past student body presidents of Central.  Henry Louis Gates, the noted African-American scholar and writer, also spoke. He said he felt like he was visiting a “religious shrine.” And if it is a shrine, he said, the Little Rock Nine are “the saints.” He recounted the history. But he said the country today finds itself in a continuing battle for freedom and justice.

Today, he said, “We must defend the right of every American to cast the vote for the candidate of their choice.  We must defend the very affirmative action programs that launched so many people of color into their positions of power. We must fight for health care as a right and to keep the pipeline of opportunity open for the next generation and the next generation after that.”


He also said the people today must stand against homophobia and Islamaphobia and anti-black racism “and, ladies and gentlemen, against white supremacist ideology in all its hateful forms.”

Members of the Nine spoke. Melba Pattillo Beals said it was a “joy” to return and to see, for example, people of color as police officers. And she said not all those with whom she attended school with her were unfriendly.

Elizabeth Eckford,
who lives in Little Rock, talked of the silence the Nine kept for some 30 years. She began talking when she heard recollections “foreign to my experience here.”  True reconciliation, she said,  is possible only when all acknowledge a painful and shared past.
 Ernest Green said the Nine hadn’t aspired to make history. They wanted what the Constitution afforded and what their parents had paid taxes for. He said he dug in his heels after being initially denied admittance.

Green referenced the Arkansas Times cover that posed the question about Central 60 years later: “Progress?”

He said he’d put it, “Progress ellipsis.”  He said, “Progress is not a single action or moment. It is the small mundane everyday action.” He cited several examples: A Muhammad Ali becomes a Colin Kaepernick, he said by way of pointed example.


Gloria Ray Karlmark said she never thought she’d be here today, but “it feels pretty good.” She recalled getting a yearbook on the final day of school.  She was 15. She knew others signed books. “Who would I dare go up to and ask to sign my book?” As she stood there, Becky, a girl she’d secretly exchanged notes with, came up and signed the book. Then another girl signed and wrote, “In another age, we could have been friends.”

Carlotta Walls LaNier said City Manager Bruce Moore had asked her more than a year ago for ideas about this week’s events. “I would like to have dinner in the Whtie House with President Hillary Clinton,” she told him. The crowd applauded.

“But this is the second best, being here.”

She said the Nine were worried when finally admitted. They were behind. They didn’t know what the year would hold or how Gov. Orval Faubus would continue to affect their experience. She recalled how Gov. Bill Clinton welcomed them in 1987 and how Hillary Clinton, who’d been ill, came downstairs and talked with the Nine until the early morning along with City Director Lottie Shackelford. The welcome 10 years later was “overwhelming and kind and gracious. It was well-meaning and heartfelt.”

At the 50th, the Little Rock Nine Foundation had begun to help students to go college. They were happy, she said. They had a place in the national civil rights movement.

And now today, they return as “senior citizens” and one, Jefferson Thomas, is gone.

And now, through “45,” or Donald Trump and his Twitter account, she finds something of a return to where people were 60 years ago. But she cited the old spiritual, “We have come too far to turn back now.”

Terrence Roberts said he didn’t come to celebrate. “That time has not yet come.” From his perspective, he’d first want that the crisis hadn’t happened. And he has a vision of a “war against the forces determined to maintain the status quo.” He said “willful ignorance” is one of the most deadly sins we face.
Minnijean Brown Trickey said she sees the 60th as a pilgrimage, or a search of moral or spiritual significance. “The work is not complete until a beloved community is achieved,” she said.  She referred obliquely to the current president again, as she had earlier in the week, with a reference to “profound intentional ignorance.”  She told me last night, and repeated for the audience today, “We’re not stupid. We know what’s going on in this town.” She keeps up with the ongoing school divisions — the takeover and all the rest.
Gabriel Wair spoke for his grandmother, Thelma Mothershed Wair. A retired teacher, she said in words he read, “Proliferation of charter schools has given us cause for concern for the future of conventional public education. ” She said she didn’t want them to become a place for those who fall below standards. It was another applause line.
Nancy Rousseau, the Central principal, introduced Bill Clinton., She noted most of her students were born after he left the White House.

Clinton reminisced. He was at Central, with Jesse Jackson, at the 20th anniversary, he noted. Then he talked about genetics, as he had at a speech Sunday night at his library, on the opening of an exhibit about Nelson Mandela. The science shows that humankind arose in Africa and that it’s a rare person, if any, without a mix of racial genetics. He delved, too, into insects — the importance of bees, the clumps of fire ants that survived Hurricane Harvey.

He was going to just give some bromides and sit down, he said. But then other things have happened. The Nine can’t just celebrate. “You have to put on your marching boots and lead us again.” It is not a partisan issue, he said. The right to vote is in peril, he intimated. And he said the country is divided by the half of a percent (genetically) by which people differ racially. We are “back to tribalism,” he said, “and it is sweeping the world.”

People who feel they’ve been “passed by” — economically and otherwise — and are fed a steady diet of resentment problems occur. And pretty soon people are coming up with ways to block people from voting or to fill their heads with wrong ideas.  In reference to the Internet, he commented, “There are almost no unmixed blessings.”

Many people today who profess to be religious don’t remember the parable of the Good Samaritan, Clinton said. Each of the world’s religions has a parallel teaching, he said. “What is the matter with us?” he lamented. He referenced Donald Trump’s recent campaign rally in Alabama,” talking in ways I hadn’t heard since the days of George Wallace.

After saying that Wallace had changed in his final years, said, “We don’t want to go back there.”

He lauded immigrants, too, noting a crime rate lower than that of non-immigrants and a higher business creation rate.

“We have to reject anger and resentment in favor of answers,” he said.

UPDATE by Leslie Peacock:

Governor Hutchinson must have felt very lonely on stage at Monday morning’s commemoration ceremony at Central High School as speaker after speaker took on the rise of the far right, anti-immigrant fervor and the threat to voting rights and health care that have marked the Republican Party’s administration of government.

It was “unimaginable” even as recently as last year, Dr. Henry Louis Gates said, that today we’d find ourselves in a such an atmosphere of hate that “we find ourselves again in the struggle for freedom.” Cheers and whistles and standing ovations met Gates’ demands that we must “defend the right of every American to cast their vote for the candidate of their choice, “at all cost” defend the affirmative action program “that launched so many people of color — and women of every color — into positions of authority.” The applause thundered when Gates insisted we “we must fight for health care as a right.”

Yells of support met Ernest Green’s “ellipsis” of progress that drew a connection between Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick, and the Little Rock Nine with the nine people slain at prayer by a white supremacist gunman at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015.

All eyes were on Hutchinson and Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore as Minnijean Brown Trickey made reference to the today’s problems in the Little Rock School District, saying, “We know what’s going on in this town.” Thelma Mothershed Wair’s more direct targeting of the “proliferation of charter schools” that are draining students from the public schools brought cheering students to their feet.

When President Clinton exhorted the crowd to put on their “marching boots,” the standing O, cheers, applause — an expression of clear disdain for a deranged Republican president —must have left Hutchinson, who supports voter I.D. laws, the health-care bill under debate in Congress that would hurt Arkansans, and who put a charter-school-funding Walton family lackey in charge of the state Department of Education, must have been yearning for an exit to a friendlier place.

That’s not to say Hutchinson didn’t receive a warm welcome. He did. He noted the bravery of the Nine, who as mere children faced hate, sometimes physical danger and a “defiant governor” in the days before the fight for civil rights became a national movement. “I want to thank the Little Rock Nine for enduring the pain,” he said to the Nine, and gave them a deep bow.

After Hutchinson spoke, moderator Dr. Sybil Hampton quoted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.”

Four of the seniors who sat on the stage during the event — all African-American girls, all college-bound — said after the event that they didn’t get to meet the Nine, but were excited to meet President Clinton. They found his speech a little wandering, but interesting nevertheless.

Clinton salvaged what might have been an embarrassing comment about how no African-Americans are all black and no whites are all white — something that goes without saying — by shifting to Gates’ program on PBS about ancestry, “Finding Your Roots.”

We all can trace our roots to sub-Saharan Africa, he said, and we all have Neanderthal genes, about 3 percent of our genome. “That’s the part that’s been rearing its ugly head” lately, Clinton said.

The former president said that fighting among one another over our differences ignores our 99.5 percent genetic sameness. Such fighting, Clinton said, has been spurred by the fact that a segment of the population has been “fed a steady diet of resentment” that has torn the country, and has created a situation where “another country thinks these people are so nuts … I’ll mess with their heads,” referring to Russian interference during the U.S. election season last year.

Clinton also took on anti-immigrant resentment that undocumented people are criminals. “The crime rate among immigrants … is one-half that of the native-born. The rate of small business creation, however, is two times that of the native-born.”

“Do we really want to go back to what it was like before World War II or the Twenties or whatever?” Clinton asked, and the audience said, “No.”

The Nine brought a measure of justice to the world, Clinton said. “So I ask you to say to them, ‘We love you.’ ”

Love was the word for the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s escort into Central High — the same division that landed in Normandy on D-Day, as Gates noted. If you don’t love your brother, speakers at both Monday morning’s commemoration and Sunday night’s interfaith service at Robinson Performance Hall repeated, you don’t love God.

At that service, Rev. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, gave a rousing talk, pointing to the role played by the so-called Christian seg academies in the South to keep segregation alive. America has “unfinished business of racism, poverty and militarism,” Warnock said; imagine, he added, if the tiki-torch demonstrators in Charlottesville had been black instead of white what the police response would have been.