- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

LITTLE ROCK — The “Little Rock Nine” brought their legacy of educational opportunity full circle last night, using their historical celebrity to fund scholarships for nine high-achieving high school students from across the country.

Former President Bill Clinton spoke at the sold-out black-tie gala, held at the Statehouse Convention Center and Little Rock”s Peabody Hotel, and praised the actions of the Little Rock Nine as making a strong stand against segregation and showing the world that people of different races are more alike than different.

“It is the central question of the modern age, and they answered it right 50 years ago,” Mr. Clinton said in honoring the nine, who made history in 1957 when as teenagers they helped to integrate the city’s schools with the aid of the 101st Airborne Division. “They wanted an education. And they wanted to be treated like people.”

The dinner, attended by about 1,300 people, helped to raise money for the Little Rock Nine Foundation, created in 1999 by the well-known Central High School students who helped open the doors on school integration 50 years ago,

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark were on hand at the event, hosted by PBS commentator Gwen Ifill. They posed for photos and dined alongside current and former Central High students, teachers and administrators.

“These men and women truly were children and to gather the courage and perform in the fashion they did — as children — makes the whole episode that much more remarkable,” said Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe.

But Carlotta Walls LaNier, the foundation’s president, said, “Many have called our actions courageous, but we simply wanted to go to school.”

The scholarship dinner capped off a day of events here. Early in the day, the nine returned in limousines to Central High, where they were lauded as heroes and cut a yellow ribbon to open the doors on a new visitors center that pays tribute to the history of race and education.

“Scripture tells us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne told the crowd of about 2,000 gathered early yesterday for the national historic site’s dedication. “Today, on the very steps of the high school where they were spurned, they are the first among us.”

The morning program featured speeches that paid tribute to the students. All nine, escorted symbolically by current members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, appeared onstage to standing ovations as they were heralded for their courage while the city was ripped apart by racial division.

Poet and Virginia Tech Distinguished Professor Nikki Giovanni, in free-form cadence, invoked nods of appreciation as she reminisced about the role of black women during that era in “Urging Us On.”

The original Freedom Singers, who traveled the South performing during the early years of the civil rights movement, sang a capella spirituals including “Eyes on the Prize” and “On My Way,” their harmony thundering out across the school’s campus as visitors fanned themselves from the humidity under gray morning skies.

In attendance were former Arkansas Govs. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor as well as Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A congressional delegation offered remarks as did Mary A. Bomar, director of the National Park Service. Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola welcomed visitors to the city.

“We must remember the pain of the past and rejoice in our path to the future,” Mr. Stodola said. “Fifty years from now, it is my hope our grandchildren will say it’s a great city because we understand the legacy of time left to us by nine great, wonderful citizens.”

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