- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

LITTLE ROCK — They were hounded in the street for autographs, chased down by old and young alike for photographs.

Thelma Mothershed Wair gamely signed programs from her wheelchair. Terrence Roberts — tall, thin and defiantly eloquent — struggled to escape the onslaught of adoration as he climbed into a gleaming white limousine.

Fifty years to the day that nine black teens parted an angry mob with the aid of the 101st Airborne Division to enter an all-white high school, the members of the famed Little Rock Nine returned to Central High School yesterday, championed as rock stars of the civil rights movement and lauded for their dignified role in integration.

Photo Gallery:Honoring the Little Rock 9

Former President Bill Clinton, accompanied by his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, told the crowd of about 4,000 gathered on the school grounds that they should be grateful not only for the nine’s actions 50 years ago but also for the way they have led their lives since.

“I’m grateful for the example they set for students here,” the former Arkansas governor said, noting that none of the students squandered their intellectual gifts.

“They were smart kids,” he said, who stepped up in the face of opposition to demand they receive the best education they could get. “These people came to this school because they wanted a life. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if my life would have turned out the way it did.”

The commemoration ceremony honoring the Little Rock Nine drew state and national dignitaries, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and television host Tavis Smiley, and a host of former and current students, including several hundred members of the current senior class who wore matching black and white T-shirts to commemorate the event.

Student body President Cyrus Bahrassa, 17, acknowledging the soggy weather, delivered a passionate welcome back and thank-you.

“Fifty years ago, the Little Rock Nine were soaked not by rain, but by sweat, tears and spit,” Cyrus said. “But tears, spit and sweat never stopped them from seeking equality.

“You didn’t hate back,” he said. “Maybe you knew it was the right thing to do.”

Mayor Mark Stodola told residents that although things had changed at Central High over the years, his city still has great economic and social injustice. He acknowledged sharp racial divisions on the local school board and called for renovations of neglected poor neighborhoods.

“We may be desegregated, but we still have a lot of room to go to be integrated,” he said. “It’s time for every citizen in Little Rock to come forward and make good on the debt [the Little Rock Nine] paid.”

All nine former students took to the stage to offer personal reflections that were funny, pointed, emotional — Gloria Ray Karlmark had to pause at the podium to hold back her tears. They honored their own parents for having the strength to allow them to integrate Central High, despite the risks.

Little Rock parent Druann Baskin, who brought her own teenage daughter to the event as part of a high school newspaper experience, said that as a mother, she was blown away by the courage of their families.

“I cannot imagine being a mother or father and having the guts to say you can go” under such threatening conditions, she said of the nine. “Their bravery as parents is phenomenal to me.”

Mr. Clinton, whose own namesake foundation has supported the Little Rock Nine Foundation’s scholarship efforts, said the group’s future legacy rests in Americans taking personal responsibility for true educational reform.

“Access is not the same as equal opportunity, and equal opportunity is not the same as excellence,” Mr. Clinton said, drawing applause.

“We have still not solved the fundamental challenges of American education — how to replicate excellence,” he said. “Every student in American deserves that … Just think: What if these nine kids had sat here with their parents and said how great Brown vs. Board of Education was, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone went to Central High School? They didn’t say: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice?’ They said: ‘Here I am Lord, send me.’ ”

“Remember them,” Mr. Clinton urged. “Say ‘Send me.’ ”

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