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

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.

"There's been a huge decline -- it takes us back to the kinds of numbers we had in the late '60s," said Gary Orfield, a professor of education at UCLA.

The student body at Little Rock Central High School is 53 percent black and 40 percent white.

Orfield attributed the change in Little Rock's school district to decades of court rulings and other changes that, as of June, restrict school districts in considering race for school attendance plans.

"Little Rock is in the same situation that a lot of the South is," he said. "There's no court order to integrate anymore and the school board doesn't have any right to take any action to integrate based on race. It probably means it will become more segregated."

None of this changed the ebullient mood of Tuesday's commemoration.

"This day should be about gratitude for all of us," Clinton told the crowd. "I'm grateful that they've lived 50 years and that we can see them" and learn the lessons of their actions.

He said that as an 11-year-old Arkansan, he had heard of their exploits and that they changed him, shaping his life.

"They made me decide not just to have an opinion, but to have conviction," he told the crowd.

But while Clinton received warm applause, the brief appearances by the nine captivated the crowd. They are an accomplished group, earning numerous bachelor's and master's degrees, though generally heavier and grayer. Two of them used wheelchairs.

On the podium, they thanked their parents and advised youngsters to be diligent. If they did recall anything for the crowd about those turbulent times, it did not involve being spit on, or insulted or physically threatened -- as if the meanness of those days had been cleansed in memory. They recalled instead the humor and determination.

Jefferson Thomas recalled going to a pep rally, and cheering as he heard a group of white student sing what he thought was the school fight song and wave what he thought was the state flag. Then he saw another black student glaring at him.

He realized then "that was not the fight song. That was not the Arkansas flag," he recalled. "They'd come in singing 'Dixie' and waving the Confederate flag."

"You can overcome adversity if you know you are doing the right thing," said Carlotta Walls Lanier, another of the nine.

D'Angelo Holiday, 11, of Little Rock had a poster on which he had collected the signature of each of the nine. He was thrilled, he said.

"They made a difference by showing that they are no different from white people and they have the same right to an education," he said.

"I am grateful that my country is reconsidering its past," said Gloria Ray Karlmark, whose career has included being a schoolteacher, systems analyst and technical writer. "A mistake was made, and we're dealing with it. That's the American way."

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