Former President Bill Clinton joined the eight living members of the Little Rock Nine on Saturday to dedicate an exhibit in the Clinton Presidential Center commemorating the black students who were pioneers in school integration more than five decades ago.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 outlawed racial segregation in the nation’s public schools, but it wasn’t until 1957, at Little Rock, that the federal government resolved to enforce the court’s directive.
It was the first gathering of the group of students from Little Rock Central High School without fellow member Jefferson Thomas, who died last year.
“This is the first time for all of us to be together without Jeff among us,” said Carlotta Walls LaNier, president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation. “We are eight today but in the spirit of this occasion, we will always be the nine.”
Clinton shared in that sentiment.
“He was one of those men that was so nice and polite, it was easy to underestimate what he knew and how he felt,” he said.
The Little Rock Nine Congressional Gold Medal exhibit features one of the medals awarded to the group by Clinton on behalf of the Congress in 1999. Members of the Little Rock Nine collectively donated the medal to the Clinton Foundation in 2009 to honor their relationship with the former president.
“I want to say how proud and honored we are to have one of our most cherished awards, the Congressional Gold Medal, permanently exhibited here at Clinton Presidential Library. It makes a powerful statement of redemption,” LaNier said. “No one could have imagined that this city’s resistance to court-ordered desegregation would have the national impact that it did.”
The exhibit also features a video documenting the history of the Little Rock Nine, including a 1957 speech from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower calling for the use of troops to protect black students trying to integrate in Little Rock, along with their high school diplomas and other related memorabilia.
After his election in 2008, President Barack Obama sent each of the nine special invitations to his inauguration as the nation’s first black president and credited the students with making opportunities in his life possible.
Clinton said the message of the Little Rock Nine is still relevant today.
“It’s important to remember one fundamental thing about democracy, and this is what we’ve got to be pulling for with the Egyptians and everybody else. You can’t have democracy that’s just majority rule,” he said. “We need the voices of America to remember the mission we’ve been given.”
LaNier said she is proud to have the medal on display in her home state.
“We are honored that this medal is here to show our young people, the community and the world just how far we have come and provide hope for even greater progress,” she said. “Deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome. There remains much to overcome.”