This week, I had the privilege of sharing the Roosevelt Thompson Auditorium stage with the Little Rock Nine as we remembered their first day at Central High 60 years ago.
Those nine braved a gauntlet of opposition as they traversed the sidewalks and trudged up the steps into the school.
But Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Dr. Melba Patillo Beals, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed Wair, Dr. Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls LaNier did not respond in kind. They completed their mission with courage and grace.
We gathered in Little Rock on the 60th anniversary in an effort to ensure that our state and nation will never forget the courage, fortitude and persistence they showed. The events of that fall day changed the path of a nation.
The integration of Central High was early in the civil rights movement. It was before many of the lunch-counter protests. It was before the Freedom Riders took to southern highways. It predated some of the most violent confrontations with civil-rights supporters. It was six years before Reverend Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his voice ringing out to 250,000 people as he declared: “I have a dream.”
That gives us an even greater appreciation for the lonely steps of the Little Rock Nine as they confronted hostility, the unknown and a defiant governor.
It is a significant but little known point of Little Rock history that Reverend King was quietly in the audience in the spring when Ernest Green crossed the podium to receive his diploma and became the first African-American graduate of Central High. Perhaps that moment inspired Reverend King to fully see the potential of his own dreams; perhaps as he sat here in Little Rock, he glimpsed the mountain top where all of God's children are created equal.
The bravery of those youth inspired hope for all whose dreams had been crushed by an unfair system. Their quiet determination and stubborn refusal to abandon their dreams not only forced action, but set an example to inspire all who face dream-crushing obstacles.
We all are equally challenged, motivated and grateful for those nine who said we must do it because it is right and because it is just.
On this 60th anniversary, we should remember that we should always treat one another with understanding, offer words of encouragement and act with kindness and compassion. Some of the students at Central knew that back then. Some resisted the mob mentality and hysteria and acted kindly to the Little Rock Nine, and their example can also guide us today.
We are all made in God's image, and an America that limits a person's dreams based on the circumstances of birth cannot fulfill its destiny. We must aspire to greatness by our acts of goodness.
Even as our ancestors and history do not dictate our values, the sacrificial victories of the Little Rock Nine do not guarantee equal opportunity or freedom from discrimination. We must vigilantly educate the present generation about tolerance, forgiveness and equal treatment.
Thank you to the Little Rock Nine for enduring the pain. But now all of Arkansas is proud and claims you as pioneers, heroes and role models.