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Bill Clinton Honors Arkansas’ Little Rock Nine, 1957 Civil Rights Icons

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Little Rock Nine hold a special place in Bill Clinton’s heart.

He returned here on Saturday to honor the nine African-American students who in 1957 were prevented from attending the racially segregated Little Rock Central High School by the Gov. Orval Faubus and angry mobs that threatened lynching.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10730, which sent units of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard to escort the students into the school.

The protests continued, but the Little Rock Nine were eventually admitted to Central High. They still faced verbal and physical abuse, and the incident clouded the national perception of Arkansas for decades. And it became one of the most important events in the civil rights movement.

Clinton celebrated the unveiling of a new permanent exhibit, which features the Little Rock Nine Congressional Gold Medal, at his presidential library. In 1999, then-President Clinton bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal, the country’s highest civilian honor, to the Little Rock Nine at a White House ceremony.

After a video with crisp footage of Eisenhower’s famous 1957 address to the nation about the Central High crisis, Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the Little Rock Nine and president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, introduced Clinton, sporting a gray three-piece suit and a Navy blue tie.

At times, Clinton sounded troubled about the direction of the country, and his speech seemed more political than commemorative.

He talked about the controversial ending of a busing plan by tea party board members in a North Carolina school district that had allowed diverse students to attend school together. He mentioned the campaign to repeal health care reform and what he characterized as backward steps on energy and education. And Clinton harshly criticized the growing conservative agenda, saying the country was “infected with a virus” that believes any federal power is “quashing democracy.”

He said that Eisenhower was a genuine conservative Republican for his time, but that didn’t stop him from using federal power to gain equal opportunity for all Americans regardless of race. “Conservative means something very different today than it did in 1957,” Clinton said.

Clinton was 11 years old when the Central High crisis unfolded. He said that he watched Eisenhower on television but could not tell if he was a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. He never forgot the message or the historical moment.

In 1977, when he was the state’s attorney general, Clinton attended an event at Central High School with members of the Little Rock Nine and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Clinton recalled that Jackson, a liberal activist, gave an unlikely speech.

“He gave what would be a right-wing conservative speech today,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s point: Jackson spoke about his position on family values without politics entering the dialogue. That no longer happens, he said. But it should.

“We need voices of America to remember the mission we were given,” he said. “Listen to President Eisenhower . . . let’s try to give it [a more perfect union] to more people in the 21st century.”

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Written by suziparker1313

March 10, 2011 at 3:58 am

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