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Desegregation Pioneers Reflect on Education Milestone

Fifty years ago, nine black students entered Little Rock Central High School, marking a critical moment in the efforts to desegregate the nation's schools. Seven of the "Little Rock Nine" recall their experiences.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    All they wanted to do was go to class, up the 57 steps that lead to the front doors of Little Rock Central High School. But for nine black students — only 14, 15, and 16 years old at the time — going back to school that September of 1957, two years after the Supreme Court decreed that all-white schools like Central must be integrated, would not be that simple.

    Over the course of three weeks, they were blocked, spat upon, harassed. Their supporters were attacked. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, declaring that "blood will run in the streets" if the integration went forward, called out the Arkansas National Guard to stop them. It took President Dwight D. Eisenhower to trump Faubus by sending in the Army 101st Airborne Division to enforce the law.

    Fifty years later, the nine teenagers are approaching or past retirement age. And when they see each other now, it is to celebrate: a congressional gold medal; a commemorative stamp; and, in 2005, the unveiling of bronze statues capturing their fateful walk on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol.

    This weekend, thousands gathered to salute the nine at their old high school, which is still open, and at the unveiling of a new National Parks Service visitors' center across the street.

    REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), Georgia: You displayed what I like to call raw courage. But I've asked my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, "Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?" They would have said, "That's the way it is. Don't get in the way. Don't get in trouble." But you, in 1957, got in the way. You got in trouble. It was good trouble. It was necessary trouble. You inspired all of us to get in trouble.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In Little Rock today, civil rights icons joined former president and former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton in noting the half-century mark.

    BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: This day should be about gratitude for all of us. You should think about — every one of you in your life — what it is you have to be grateful for to the Little Rock Nine. I am grateful for the lives these people have lived.

    And I hope the students listen most closely of all. Look what they all did with their lives because they developed their minds when they were young. They fought for the right to do it. We celebrate the triumph of a struggle today, but we dare not forget what they did with the gift they were given. We all have to do the same with the gifts we are given.

    Every one of you has got a good mind. Every one of you can develop it. Every one of you can make more of your lives. These people came to this school because they wanted a life, a life, a real life, a chance to succeed and fail, to dream and go. And I'm grateful for their lives, and I love listening to them.

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