The Little Rock Nine, from left: Melba Patillo Beals; Thelma Mothershed Wair, seated; Minnijean Brown Trickey; Elizabeth Eckford; Terrence Roberts; Carlotta Walls LaNier; Gloria Ray Karlmark; Jefferson Thomas; and Ernest Green.
The Little Rock Nine, from left: Melba Patillo Beals; Thelma Mothershed Wair, seated; Minnijean Brown Trickey; Elizabeth Eckford; Terrence Roberts; Carlotta Walls LaNier; Gloria Ray Karlmark; Jefferson Thomas; and Ernest Green.
Photos By Danny Johnston -- Associated Press

On 50th Anniversary, 'Little Rock Nine' Get a Hero's Welcome

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) hugs Bill Clinton after he spoke at the observance.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) hugs Bill Clinton after he spoke at the observance. (Danny Johnston - AP)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

LITTLE ROCK, Sept. 25 -- This time around, the Little Rock Nine pulled up at the high school in three white stretch limousines.

Five decades ago, they had to walk through a gantlet of jeering whites shouting venomous threats. Tuesday, fans swarmed them for autographs and pictures. News crews lobbed softball questions. In front of a crowd of 5,000 people, dignitaries including former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, governors, congressmen and the mayor were on hand to laud their bravery in desegregating the school.

The nine former students had returned to the campus of Little Rock Central High School half a century after President Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered soldiers to escort them into the school.

"We thought this was a place that would accept us," one of the nine, Ernest Green, told the crowd. "And you know what? Fifty years later, I think we were right!"

It was a day of unmitigated adulation of the nine, and recognition of how much their determination to attend school had galvanized the civil rights movement,

Their decision to enroll despite the dangers, backed by the federal show of force, made it clear throughout the nation that the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education would be enforced.

But off the podium here, in private conversations, there was also concern that their achievements had been in part undone by other social changes. Many school districts around the country, for instance, are becoming more segregated along racial lines.

"The forces that resisted the desegregation of Little Rock have never stopped fighting," Jesse L. Jackson said. "Those who rejected the dream are still rejecting the dream."

With the growth of private religious academies, vouchers and charter schools, Jackson said, black and white students are less likely to attend school together. He noted the difficulties of integrating schools when whites leave urban areas, leaving behind what he called "the hole in the doughnut."

"Anything other than have people send their kids where whites and blacks are together," he said.

His observations are borne out in Little Rock and elsewhere in the United States by statistics from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

The high point of desegregation in the Little Rock School District came in 1980, when the average black student attended a school that was 50 percent white. Today, the average black student attends a school that is 20 percent white.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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