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'Too far to turn back now' 

The Nine and Clinton condemn Trump, recall past.

click to enlarge AFTER THE COMMEMORATION: Thelma Mothershed-Wair autographs a painting by a student. - LESLIE NEWELL PEACOCK
  • Leslie Newell Peacock
  • AFTER THE COMMEMORATION: Thelma Mothershed-Wair autographs a painting by a student.

It was four days of standing ovations, heartfelt cheers for the Little Rock Nine, applause and reminders that there is still much to do in the way of race relations in America: Thursday's press conference given by the Nine where they talked about such things as the retribution their parents faced for letting them desegregate Central High in 1957. Saturday's house brought down by a feisty, funny, fabulous Mavis Staples urging the crowd at the Robinson Center Performance Hall to respect themselves. Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor's rousing praise of the bravery of the Little Rock Nine at Sunday's interfaith service and his truth-telling about America's original sin of slavery and its continuing harm. Monday morning's commemoration, a call to arms to not let what the Nine went through be for nothing. The names of the Nine — including that of the late Jefferson Thomas — were repeated and repeated and repeated, and every time the people stood and clapped loud and long. They lauded the Nine, now eight, to make it last, because who knows what the number of these heroic figures will be at the 70th anniversary. That's why, Melba Pattillo Beals told the Times last week, she knew the eight survivors would make the trip to Little Rock. "We might not see each other again," she said.

At Monday morning's commemoration at Central High, exactly 60 years to the day the Little Rock Nine were escorted into school by the 101st Airborne, an empty chair on stage was draped with a stole of Central's gold and black, in remembrance of Jefferson Thomas, who died in 2010. "He was the one with the sense of humor," Carlotta Walls LaNier recalled when it came her time to speak. In a 2007 interview with Thomas, he quipped that he didn't have any problem with maintaining a non-violent position in the face of violence. "I was a good runner.")

Dignitaries gathered Monday to honor the Nine included former President Bill Clinton; Governor Hutchinson; Mayor Mark Stodola; Dr. Sybil Hampton, the first African-American to attend Central for all high school years and graduate; Rev. LaVerne Bell-Toliver; and two past student body presidents of Central.

Henry Louis Gates, the noted African-American scholar, writer and TV and radio host, added extra star power. He said he felt like he was visiting a "religious shrine." And if it is a shrine, he said, the Little Rock Nine are "the saints."

Members of the Nine spoke. Beals, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, said it was a "joy" to return and to see, for example, people of color as police officers. And she said not all those with whom she attended school with her were unfriendly.

Elizabeth Eckford, who lives in Little Rock, talked of the silence the Nine kept for some 30 years. She began talking when she heard recollections "foreign to my experience here." True reconciliation, she said, is possible only when all acknowledge a painful and shared past.

Ernest Green, of Washington, D.C., said the Nine hadn't aspired to make history. They wanted what the Constitution afforded and what their parents had paid taxes for. He said he dug in his heels after being initially denied admittance.

Green referenced the Arkansas Times cover that posed the question about Central 60 years later: "Progress?"

He said he'd put it, "Progress ellipsis." He said, "Progress is not a single action or moment. It is the small mundane everyday action." A Muhammad Ali becomes a Colin Kaepernick, he said by way of pointed example.

Gloria Ray Karlmark, who lives in Amsterdam, said she never thought she'd be here today, but "it feels pretty good." She recalled getting a yearbook on the final day of school. She was 15. She knew others signed books. "Who would I dare go up to and ask to sign my book?" As she stood there, Becky, a girl she'd secretly exchanged notes with, came up and signed the book. Then another girl signed and wrote, "In another age, we could have been friends."

Carlotta Walls LaNier, who lives in Denver, said City Manager Bruce Moore had asked her more than a year ago for ideas about this week's events. "I would like to have dinner in the White House with President Hillary Clinton," she told him. The crowd applauded.

"But this is the second best, being here."

She said the Nine were worried when finally admitted. They were behind. They didn't know what the year would hold or how Gov. Orval Faubus would continue to affect their experience. She recalled how Gov. Bill Clinton welcomed them in 1987 and how Hillary Clinton, who'd been ill, came downstairs and talked with the Nine until the early morning along with City Director Lottie Shackelford. The welcome 10 years later was "overwhelming and kind and gracious. It was well-meaning and heartfelt."

At the 50th, the Little Rock Nine Foundation had begun to help students to go to college. They were happy, she said. They had a place in the national civil rights movement.

And now, through "45," or President Trump and his Twitter account, she finds something of a return to where people were 60 years ago. But she cited the old spiritual, "We have come too far to turn back now."

Terrence Roberts, who lives in California, said he didn't come to celebrate. "That time has not yet come." From his perspective, he'd first want that the crisis hadn't happened. And he has a vision of a "war against the forces determined to maintain the status quo." He said "willful ignorance" is one of the most deadly sins we face.

Minnijean Brown Trickey, a resident of Canada after a brief return to Little Rock in the 2000s, said she sees the 60th as a pilgrimage, or a search of moral or spiritual significance. "The work is not complete until a beloved community is achieved," she said. She referred obliquely to the current president again, as she had earlier in the week, with a reference to "profound intentional ignorance." She told the audience, "We're not stupid. We know what's going on in this town." She keeps up with the ongoing school divisions — the takeover and all the rest.

Gabriel Wair spoke for his grandmother, Thelma Mothershed Wair. A retired teacher, she said in words he read, "Proliferation of charter schools has given us cause for concern for the future of conventional public education. " She said she didn't want them to become a place for those who fall below standards. It was another applause line.

Central Principal Nancy Rousseau introduced Bill Clinton, noting that most of her students were born after he left the White House (after which she mouthed "sorry" to Clinton).

Clinton reminisced. He was at Central, with Jesse Jackson, at the 20th anniversary, he noted. Then he talked about genetics, as he had at a speech Sunday night at his library, on the opening of an exhibit about Nelson Mandela. The science shows that humankind arose in Africa and that it's a rare person, if any, without a mix of racial genetics. He delved, too, into insects — termites smart enough to air-condition their burrows, the clumps of fire ants that survived Hurricane Harvey, as examples of how their cooperation has meant their survival.

He was going to just give some bromides and sit down, Clinton said. But then other things have happened. He said the Nine could put on their dancing shoes to celebrate the anniversary, but tomorrow, "You have to put on your marching boots and lead us again."

Echoing a theme heard many times over the past few days, Clinton said that many people today who profess to be religious don't remember the parable of the Good Samaritan. Each of the world's religions has a parallel teaching, he said. "What is the matter with us?" he lamented. He referenced Trump's recent campaign rally in Alabama," talking in ways I hadn't heard since the days of George Wallace."

After saying that Wallace had changed in his final years, he said, "We don't want to go back there."

"We have to reject anger and resentment in favor of answers," he said.

***

Hutchinson must have felt very lonely on stage as the commemoration ceremony bore on, with speaker after speaker lambasting the rise of the far right, anti-immigrant fervor and the threat to voting rights and health care that have marked the Republican Party's administration of government.

It was "unimaginable" even as recently as last year, Gates said, that today "we find ourselves again in the struggle for freedom." Cheers and whistles and standing ovations met Gates' demands that people must "defend the right of every American to cast their vote for the candidate of their choice" and "at all cost" defend the affirmative-action program "that launched so many people of color — and women of every color — into positions of authority." The applause thundered when Gates insisted "we must fight for health care as a right ... and to keep the pipeline of opportunity open for the next generation and the next generation after that."

That means standing against homophobia and Islamaphobia and anti-black racism "and, ladies and gentlemen, against white supremacist ideology in all its hateful forms."

There were cries of support when Ernest Green drew a connection between the Little Rock Nine with the nine people slain at prayer by a white supremacist gunman at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

All eyes were on Hutchinson and Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore as Minnijean Brown Trickey made reference to today's problems in the LRSD: "We know what's going on in this town." Wair's more direct targeting of the "proliferation of charter schools" that are draining students from the public schools brought cheering students to their feet.

When Clinton turned to the crowd to say everyone must put on our "marching boots," the standing O, cheers, applause — an expression of clear disdain for a deranged Republican president — must have left Hutchinson, who supports voter ID laws, the health care bill under debate in Congress that would hurt Arkansans, and who put a charter-school-funding Walton family lackey in charge of the state Department of Education, yearning for an exit to a friendlier place.

That's not to say Hutchinson didn't receive a warm welcome. He did. He lauded the Little Rock Nine for their determination and success in changing an "unfair" system. He noted that the Little Rock Central student body of 2018 will look quite different than that of 1958. He didn't give the number — 18 percent white today against 99 percent white in 1958 (only Ernest Green was a senior.) He urged people to work toward a "more civil society."

He noted the bravery of the Nine, who as mere children faced hate, sometimes physical danger and a "defiant governor" in the days before the fight for civil rights became a national movement. "I want to thank the Little Rock Nine for enduring the pain," he said to the Nine, and gave them a deep bow.

After Hutchinson spoke, moderator Dr. Sybil Hampton quoted Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here."

***

After the event, the Nine and President Clinton posed for pictures at the front of the stage, within reaching distance of a mob of people with hands outstretched for a handshake and an autograph. Terrence Roberts crouched on the edge of the stage for an interview with a young woman who asked him if he believed racial equality was in danger of losing ground. "We as a people need to be willing to confront that reality," Roberts said. "Until we do there will be no progress that is significant. ...

"We are going forward very slowly because the forces of opposition keep pushing back. Power will concede nothing unless there is a force of equal magnitude pushing back against it. If you are a part of the ruling class, what incentive would there be to give up that status?"

Four members of the senior class, who got to sit on the stage during the event — all African-American girls, all college-bound — said afterward that they didn't get to meet the Nine, but were excited to meet President Clinton. They found his speech a little wandering, but interesting nevertheless.

Clinton salvaged what might have been an embarrassing comment about how no African-Americans are all black and no whites are all white — something that goes without saying — by shifting to Gates' program on PBS about ancestry, "Finding Your Roots." Part of that ancestry is Neanderthal — about 3 percent of our genome, Clinton said., and "that's the part that's been rearing its ugly head" lately, Clinton said.

The former president said that fighting among one another over our differences ignores our 99.5 percent genetic sameness. Such fighting, Clinton said, has been spurred by the fact that a segment of the population has been "fed a steady diet of resentment" that has torn apart the country, and has created a situation where "another country thinks these people are so nuts ... I'll mess with their heads," referring to Russian interference during the U.S. election season last year.

Clinton also took on anti-immigrant resentment that undocumented people are criminals. "The crime rate among immigrants ... is one-half that of the native born. The rate of small business creation, however, is two times that of the native born."

"Do we really want to go back to what it was like before World War II or the '20s or whatever?" Clinton asked, and the audience said, "No."

The Nine brought a measure of justice to the world, Clinton said. "So I ask you to say to them, 'We love you.' "

***

Love was the word for the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine's escort into Central High — the same division that landed in Normandy on D-Day, as Gates noted. If you don't love your brother, speakers at both Monday morning's commemoration and Sunday night's interfaith service at Robinson Performance Hall said quoting 1 John 4:20, you don't love God.

At Sunday's service, Rev. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was co-pastor with his father, gave a rousing talk about the persistence of racism in the United States. He noted the role played by the so-called Christian seg academies in the South to keep segregation alive, saying he didn't know what Bible they read but it wasn't the one he read. "Jefferson Beauregard Session," he said, was aiding the militarization of American police with his decision to send soldier gear their way. America has "unfinished business of racism, poverty and militarism," Warnock said.

Warnock talked about America's indifference to drugs when they were seen a black problem; now, he said, white leadership is vowing to do something about the epidemic of "opioids" — even giving the problem a new name.

As it did on Monday, Kaepernick's name came up: Warnock wondered aloud how it is that the president of the United States can criticize the football players and others who have been taking a knee during the anthem to protest police brutality against black citizens but say there were "good people" among the Nazis in Charlottesville.

And imagine, Warnock said, if the tiki-torch bearers in Charlottesville, Va., had been black instead of white. Would they have been allowed to disperse without police presence — or would they have been met with tanks?

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