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Commemoration Ceremony Speech for the 60th Anniversary of the Integration of Central High School


Good morning, President Clinton, Mayor Stodola, and those of the Little Rock 9 with us today.

Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls Lanier, Dr. Terrence Roberts, Minnijean Brown Trickey and Thelma Mothershed Wair.

I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed our visit before the ceremony today.

We are gathered here today so that our state and nation will never forget the courage, fortitude and persistence you showed the world 60 years ago. The events of that fall day changed the path of a nation. 

Yes, the bravery of youth inspired hope for all whose dreams had been crushed by an unfair system.  A system that failed to change with deliberate speed. Your quiet determination and your stubborn refusal to abandon your dreams not only forced action, but set an example that will last into the ages.

Whether you witnessed the events in person or, like me, you studied and reflected on that moment in history from a distance, we are all equally challenged, motivated, and grateful for those who said we can do it because it is right and because it is just.

In 1957, of course, we know what the makeup of Central High’s student body was. Because of you, the student body of the class of 2018, looks different. Your enrollment comprises students from 27 countries who speak a total of 24 languages.

It is important to remember that Little Rock Central was integrated six years before Reverend Martin Luther King gave his landmark "I have a dream speech" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

It is a significant historical fact that a young Reverend King was quietly in the audience when Ernest Green walked across the podium to receive his diploma and become the first African-American graduate of Central High. Perhaps, Reverend King was propelled by that moment to fully see the potential of his own dreams; and perhaps he got a glimpse of the mountaintop where all of God's children are created equal.   

The integration of Central High was so early in the civil rights movement – it was before many of the counter sit-ins, it was before the bus rides, and that fact gives us all an even greater appreciation for the lonely steps of the Little Rock 9 as they confronted hostility, the unknown and a defiant governor.

  On this 60th anniversary, what can we draw upon to guide us today? We should never, first of all, undervalue the transcendent importance of how we treat each other.    

Let's seek understanding, live each day with words of encouragement and compassion, and let's pray and work for a more civil society. Those students of Central High who resisted the mob mentality and hysteria and acted in kindness to the Little Rock 9 are additional examples to us all.

There is also a lesson for our nation. We are all made in God's image, and America cannot fulfill its destiny if we limit any person's dreams because of how one is born. We are all part of the fabric of this nation, and we hope our greatness will be defined by our goodness.

But there is another lesson. Just as our ancestors and history do not define our values; in the same sense the victories sacrificially won by the Little Rock 9 do not guarantee equal opportunity or freedom from discrimination for this generation or the next. 

Whether it is revisiting the lessons of history or sounding the alarm about current dangers, we must be constant in educating the present generation about tolerance, forgiveness and equal treatment. 

Finally, I want to thank the Little Rock 9 for enduring the pain. There is no other word to describe your experience 60 years ago, but we are grateful as a state and nation for the difference you made for all of us. Arkansas claims you as pioneers, heroes and examples to follow. Thank you. And may God have His continued blessing on the Little Rock 9.

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