Little Rock Nine Honored on 50th Anniversary

The nine black students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School fifty years ago were honored by the governor and a host of dignitaries today.

The Little Rock Nine, once barred from Central High School because they are black, arrived on its soggy campus in limousines Tuesday as the community marked 50 years since President Eisenhower directed soldiers to escort the students inside.

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

About 4,500 people gathered on the front lawn of the inner-city campus, where the high school is now 52 percent black, to commemorate one of the key moments in the civil rights movement. Former President Clinton held open the school’s doors in a symbolic gesture. “I am grateful we had a Supreme Court that saw ‘separate but equal’ and ‘states rights’ for the shams they were, hiding our desire to preserve the oppression of African-Americans, and I am grateful more than I can say that we had a president who was determined to enforce the order of the court,” Clinton said.

The two-hour ceremony included brief remarks by each of the Little Rock Nine: Melba Patillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls Lanier, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown Trickey and Thelma Mothershed Wair.

“The thing I feared most in my life were white policemen. White policemen have guarded me these last few days. I’ve spoken to them. We’ve talked to each other,” Beals said. “As I stepped out of my limousine, a white man who doesn’t know me reached for the collar, the lapel, of my coat, and straightened it. “It is the look in your eyes, the smile on your faces — white, black, green or blue — the determination in the eyes of those of color and the willingness to move ahead, that makes me know we’re cool,” she said.

As wrenching as the events leading up to this and similar instances across the country were, it’s amazing how fast we adjusted to the new reality. By the time I started school fourteen years later (in Houston, Texas) it likely never occurred to any of us that going to school with black kids was the slightest bit unusual.

On a tangential matter, it’s rather interesting that the Little Rock Nine are all still alive. Granted, they’re only in their late 60s. Still, fifty years is a long time and it’s somewhat remarkable that they’ve all escaped the wars, accidents, disease, and crime that claim so many lives. My class was small but we’d lost members before I graduated college.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. bob in fl says:

    I was also thinking earlier today how amazing it is they are all still alive. There were members of my graduating class (of 77 in 1962) who died prior to graduating FROM high school. (correcting your grammar, James)

    Growing up in rural SE Michigan, I never even met a black person face to face until a few years after hs, & after my draft board physical. Times sure have changed. Unfortunately many people’s attitudes haven’t. We still have a long way to go for real equality between races. But at least we have started.

  2. Monica says:

    Hey James – what school did you go to in Houston?

  3. James Joyner says:

    what school did you go to in Houston?

    Olsen Elementary for 1st and 2nd and then the then-opening Mary Walker Stevens for 3rd (possibly moved mid-year; it’s been 30-plus years now).