Blinking back tears, the middle-aged men and women known as the Little Rock Nine listened intently yesterday as President Clinton praised their bravery as teenagers.
The Arkansans, whose 1957 journey through the hostile halls of an all-white school helped turned the tide against segregation, accepted the Congressional Gold Medal.
"We were really ordinary people," Ernest Green, 58, told an audience of about 300 at the White House ceremony. "We were simply exercising our right to the best education in the world. We had enough sense that if we played by the rules and worked hard, somebody would support us."
Green, now a Washington investment counselor, was among the nine black students who on Sept. 25, 1957, were sent to Little Rock's Central High School to enforce a school integration order. When then-Gov. Orval E. Faubus posted National Guard troops to block the teens' way, President Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to escort them in.
"The story of the Little Rock Nine in the end is the story of the triumph of the rule of law in the American Constitution," Clinton said.
Clinton also thanked dozens of members of Congress for allowing the ceremony to be held at the White House.
"We asked these nine children to be brave and heroic and they were," said former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers, who two years ago began the campaign for legislation awarding Congress's highest civilian honor to the nine. "Their place in history is finally etched and will never be erased."
In addition to Green, medals were awarded to Melba Pattillo Beals of Sausalito, Calif.; Elizabeth Eckford of Little Rock; Jefferson Thomas of Anaheim, Calif.; Terrence Roberts of Los Angeles; Carlotta Walls Lanier of Englewood, Colo.; Minnijean Brown Trickey of Ontario; Gloria Ray Karlmark of Amsterdam; and Thelma Mothershed-Wair of Belleville, Ill.