The surviving members of the Little Rock Nine returned to the high school they integrated for the 60th anniversary of one of the most iconic struggles of the civil rights movement.
Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was integrated when nine black students entered their first full day of classes on Sept. 25, 1957. Federal troops escorted them past an angry white mob.
The eight members of the group who are still living attended the Sept. 25 event. An empty chair on the stage recognized group member Jefferson Thomas, who passed away in 2010.
Among those honoring the Little Rock Nine was former President Bill Clinton, who gave a wide-ranging keynote speech that addressed the state of America under President Donald Trump.
Clinton’s full speech is printed below:
First of all, thank you Madam Principal for your leadership of, in some ways, the most important high school in the United States. Superintendent, thanks to the Park Service for taking good care of us. Thank you, Dr. Jordan, for demonstrating in this little talk how dumb it was to deny African-Americans the opportunity of a decent education for so long.
I thank all of you who came. Happy birthday, Annie Abrams, Gov. Tucker. Thank you, Secretary Slater. Thank you for all you did for our country. I want to thank you, whoever did the program, for letting Daryl and Joyce speak, for they are the true heirs of what was done here 60 years ago, and from one of them I benefit every single day.
I want to thank Melba and Elizabeth and Ernie and Gloria and Terrence and Miniijean and Carlotta, and two who are not here, Jeff and Daisy Bates. We miss them both. God, they were wonderful, weren’t they?
And I want to thank my old friend who was introduced as Dr. Henry Louis Gates, but if you want to laugh about the aging process, which, trust me, is not for sissies, when I saw him coming up here with his crutches I thought “How cute,” because all of his friends call him Skip. And then he took the pink elephant [Trump] out of the closet so the rest of us can talk.
This is also the 40th anniversary this year of my first speech as a public official, and it’s got a lot in common with today. I spoke at the Rotary Club installation banquet in Pine Bluff. There were 500 people. There were 25 speakers. By the time I got up to speak, half the people were hungry again. And the guy who introduced me had run a campaign for the governor, and he was more nervous than I was. I was a young attorney general, and he got up and said, “You know, we could stop here and have had a very good evening!” Now what he meant was, “Oh, the best is yet to come,” but what it sounded like was the truth. “Please, I wanna go home!”
But I thank them all. I thank this group for letting me be a part of their lives. For sharing their true feelings. For giving us, each in their own way, the true meaning of what we’re here about. … It’s important, I want to start there. What does all [the Little Rock Nine] said amount to? What was the pink elephant in the closet that Skip dug out?
By tracing people’s genetic lineage, you can find out almost no black people are all black, and almost zero African-Americans — and maybe there’s not a single one — whose entire lineage comes from people from sub-Saharan Africa. And almost no white people are all white, either.
Unless all of your ancestors are from sub-Saharan Africa, between three and four percent of your human genome is from the Neanderthals. That’s the parts that [inaudible].
I have this endlessly amended bucket list, and one of the things I want to do is understand genomics, particle physics and astrophysics. I spent $3 million of your tax money to do the Human Genome Project, and now you can do it for about 100 bucks, and it’s generated more than 300 billion in economic activity, so it’s the best investment of your tax money ever made. You get a big return when you invest in modernizing infrastructure, science and technology.
So I keep reading all these articles. So one day I read that our human ancestors first showed up on the African savanna between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. It took 90,000 to 100,000 years to get all the way up on North Africa, and the Middle East and Europe, and for 40,000 years after that, we co-inhabited Europe with the Neanderthals.
Turns out we liked each other better than we knew.
But they were bigger than us; they were stronger than we are. Their brains were just as big, but for reasons no one fully knows, as far as we can determine, they never wrote a book or a poem or spoke to each other in traditional ways. But it appears that they didn’t survive the last era of really big mammals and we did. Perhaps because we could run faster, but in all probability because we could communicate, and we could cooperate.
Biologist E.O Wilson says the greatest cooperators are the most likely to survive, and the best species who have ever lived for cooperation were ants, termites, bees and people. My library — all the people at the Presidential Center make fun of me. We just had that great exhibit where you could see all my “cooperators.” But it’s true — we had the tsunami in South Asia. Cooperative instinctive patterns of animals saved a bunch of them where people were killed.
In South America, there are termites that only drill air conditioned houses. I want you to think, five holes in their living quarters, the rest is all air conditioned. It’s going to rain, they know it, and they stay out so they don’t drown. Bees pollinate 96 percent of all the food human beings consume. You should really worry that the bees are dying now because of environmental and chemical conditions beyond their control.
The combined weight of ants on Earth exceeds the combined weight of people on Earth. The most touching non-human picture I saw from the awful devastation of Harvey in the Gulf Coast and in Houston was this gushing water through a city street, and on it, this massive blob of fire ants. Must have been 100,000 or more of them, and those on the bottom sacrificed themselves so they could glue themselves together and they would all survive by floating away to freedom.
But we can do more of that.
I wanted to stand up and say a lot of simple bromides about that; make everybody feel good; tell them I love them, and sit down. But then we had all this stuff happening that other people have talked about.
So I wanted to say, “You did 60 years: take a victory lap; put on your dancing shoes; have a good time.” But instead I have to say, “You got to put on your marching boots.”
This is not a partisan issue. Abraham Lincoln gave his life to hold the Union together and pass the 13th Amendment ending slavery. Ulysses Grant, a greatly misunderstood and underrated figure in our history, not just as a general but as a president, gave us the 15th Amendment, the right to vote, which he said was the most important thing that had happened since the founding of the United States of America.
And the last time I was here on this stage was with George W. Bush, because our Leadership Scholars Program takes turns doing our graduation where his library is and where mine is, but we get 60 people every year equally divided by party, representative of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, you name it. They come together and they go to the LBJ library, and his, and ours here, and study some decision at each place together. And they talk about it, together. And these are people who readily admit that in the world we live in, they would never have met each other had it not been for this program. And they study these decisions, and then they discuss how they ought to be made when they agree on the end.
And lo and behold, they find out there really is something to the most important study behind the science, which is that we’re all 99 and a half percent the same. Humans. Every non age-related difference you can see between us is down to half a percent of your genome.
We are now living in a world where we’re going back and revisiting the original questions of this country, and the original thing that tore this country apart in the civil rights movement, basically, whether all that matters is in that half a percent.
It’s bad enough that every one of us because of our personal vanities spend 99 and a half percent of our time thinking about that half percent of ourselves that are different. “Wish I were a little taller!” “If I had LeBron James’ body, I’d have gone into a different line of work!” If I could play the saxophone like John Coltrane, I’d have gone into a different line of work.
We all spend all this time — it’s bad enough we do that. Now we’re back to square one. That’s all that matters. Back to tribalism. And it’s sweeping the world. It’s entirely understandable and I think was entirely predictable. Anybody that didn’t see it coming wasn’t out there in 2014 and 2013 like I was. But when you have people that feel that they’ve been passed by economically, socially, culturally and politically, and they’re fed a steady diet of resentment, and they never meet anybody who’s different from them, or talk to anybody, then that’s the core of it.
And all you need is a little levee. People get careless about whether they vote every time. People read this, that and the other thing, pretty soon, somebody else says, “Well, you can have your resentment, I want my resentment. My resentment is more authentic than your resentment. Let’s fight about whose resentment is the most authentic.”
Pretty soon, somebody’s trying to keep you from voting. Or trying to erase you from the poll with some app, not subject to review.
Pretty soon, another country thinks, “These people are so messed up, so torn up, so full of their resentment, I’ll mess with their heads.” Isn’t the internet wonderful?
The answer is yes and no. The answer to everything goes to yes and no. That’s why democracy requires diversity and debate. There are almost no unmixed blessings.
I don’t think that [the Little Rock Nine] ever wanted to go to Little Rock Central High School, and get a good education, and have a good life, so that one day they could be in control of everybody who didn’t look like them and squeeze them by the neck until they couldn’t breathe. I think they wanted to be part of America. And part of the world. To be full, the way God meant us all to be.
You can’t do that if all you think about is that half percent difference. You can’t do that if you ignore the claim and teaching of every faith that nobody is all wise and right all the time. And every religion says in one way or the other, after the love of God, the most important thing is to love your neighbor.
So all the clever people who want to divide us say, “Yeah, but what’s the definition of neighbor?” They do not remember the parable of the good Samaritan, and that the Samaritan was not generally thought to be the neighbor of the Israelites. There are still 200,000 of them today in the Middle East and there are neighbors like every other small religion in America, not people who in the name of their perfect knowledge of the will of God want to squish them because it makes them feel good to hurt somebody else.
The Torah says he who turns aside from the stranger might as well turn away from the most high God. The Qu’ran says Allah put different people on the Earth, not that they might despise one another, but that they might come to know one another and learn from one another. The Dalai Lama of the Buddhists says that you’re not really enlightened unless you can feel the arrow piercing another person’s body as if it were entering your own.
What is the matter with us?
I heard that rally down in Alabama. I thought, “Oh my God, I gotta come look at the Little Rock Nine.” They’re down there talking in ways you haven’t heard since George Corley Wallace, the governor of Alabama, and again, they forgot the history. Wallace was the first guy who thought, “Oh, I can get black folks all over America to vote just like they do here. I just gotta get ‘em torn up and upset enough, gotta fill them with resentment, gotta stop people thinking.”
They forgot, I knew George Wallace in the last years of his life, and we served as governor. I remember when he apologized to the people of Alabama for fanning the flame of racial hatred and discrimination, and asked the African-Americans of Alabama to forgive him, and promised to serve them all. I remember when his bullet-ridden, paralyzed body was so painful it took him two hours to get dressed every day, and he got up two hours early for me one day to go to a governor’s meeting to protest new rules against aid for disabled coal miners and others who’d be thrown off disability.
I remember there was a truck driver with a ninth-grade education who’d lost his arm in an accident who was cut off from disability because they said he could work as a telephone receptionist. George Wallace got up out of bed to to vote. He became reconciled to the fact that we all have a place in America’s design.
We don’t want to go back there. We don’t want to give in to hate. We don’t want to give in to “my resentment’s more authentic than yours.” We want to look at Skip Gates’ program on television, and find out all the funny things about our ancestry we never dreamed about, and say, “Wow, how dumb were any of us ever to deny any possibility to any American.”
I want these young people to have the brightest future ever offered to any generation. Part of it, you know, is whether we can keep creating jobs in the face of robotics and artificial intelligence, and all these changes that are going to happen. Part of it is, can we really ever again bring the same economic opportunities all down in rural America that they once had? I think the answer to both is yes.
But it won’t happen by feeding our resentment, especially our resentment against immigrants. Because we native-born Americans, we who’ve lived here is now only a replacement vote. That is, we’re not growing. The median age of the workforce determines — along with the education level of the people, and the investment level in growth — the prosperity of a country. Having lost it, I can tell you youth matters. Matters in a lot of ways, but it really does matter for economic potential.
Fact number two, the crime rate among immigrants — including undocumented immigrants — is one half the crime rate of the native-born. Fact number three, the small business formation rate, however, is twice that of the native-born.
We should be worrying about our real problems, and how we solve them together. That would honor the Little Rock Nine.
Are there problems with health care? Yes. Do we need to protect our borders from people who would use them to come in and hurt us? Of course. Are the national security questions we face simple? No.
But I’ll tell you one thing: we’re not going to get from here to there by making people mad. We’re going to get from here to there by providing what they got at Little Rock Central High.
Ninety years ago when the school opened, somebody designated it the most beautiful school building in America. Twenty years after that, its football team was designated the best high school football team in America, not in the state.
When I was the governor, this one school regularly won 25 to 30 percent of all the merit scholarships in the state, but had to work like crazy to win the Latin prize over one persistent competitor from Deer, Arkansas, population 300. Because there was one woman who loved that town and had always loved the history of Rome and would talk, and in Deer, they would have a Latin banquet that the governor had. The Game Official Commission would give one condition every year to kill a bear, and the condition was — and it was by lottery — and the condition of getting the bear permit was that you had to give half the meat to Deer, because the Romans ate bear meat and this lady had a cookbook from Roman times, and I went to Deer, Arkansas to eat it. I thought it was made up, so I went to go see it. And the high school teacher discovered they were the only people who could compete with Little Rock Central High School. Why am I telling this story? Because that’s the real reason of their lives, all they wanted to do was to live their lives and be a part of America. Not apart of America, not in control of America, but a part of America.
That’s what this ought to be about. John Lewis said on the floor of the Congress the other day, that he was inspired as a young student of 17 by them [the Little Rock Nine]. And that he had to find a way to get in the wave. So we all got to get in the wave. This country is by far the best positioned country in the world for the 21st century. There is no point in our getting in our own way any longer. But we have to reject resentment and anger in favor of answers. We have to reject polarization and demonization in favor of mutual respect.
Last night, we opened the Mandela exhibit at the library, and I never ceased to be amazed at the discipline and respect Mandela showed his political adversaries. He put the people who put him in prison for 27 years in his government. And told his own people who criticized him, they said, “Ha, he’s got 62 percent of the vote against 18 opponents. Are you out of your mind putting them in?” But he said, “Yeah, we just voted for the first time in 300 years. Can we run the banks or the military or anything all by themselves?” But it’s a question anyone could ask any place in America.
Can people just like you and only like you, who only know what you know and think like you think, meet any of the challenges we face all by ourselves? The answer is always going to be no. Diverse groups make better decisions than low-end geniuses, and like-minded people and people who are so siloed they can’t bear to think about something that they are predisposed not to believe.
So we face an emotional question, a question of the heart, and a question of the mind today. Do you really believe in the legacy of the Little Rock Nine? Are you really grateful?
If you’re a parent or a grandparent, can’t you imagine how their parents felt, the first day they set out? The lasting memory I have of the 40th reunion, believe it or not, is not that I was president. I was glad that the most important thing I had to do was to hold the door so that the world could see the reality of what its symbolic message was. Because I was afraid I couldn’t give a talk, because Hillary and I had just taken Chelsea to college, and we literally had to be run out of the room, the dorm room. She was our only child, and I realized when I got here, that their parents let them come here. Terrified! Because of the promise that it offered. That I had just taken for granted for my daughter. That’s what I remember.
Are we really going to let the 200 years of our struggle to get over the idea that our differences are more important than our common humanity, just be blown away? You really want to go back to what it was like before World War II? Or the ‘20s? Or whatever?
I lived through the ‘50s and ‘60s. I’m proud of what was done, but it wasn’t pretty, and a lot of people lost their lives. So I ask you to say to [the Little Rock Nine], “We love you.” You taught us in economics and social policy and our politics: addition is better than subtraction. And multiplication is better than division. We could have learned it from them in Central High.
So celebrate today. Feel like wise, older people. Put on your dancing shoes tonight. But tomorrow, just like John Lewis, who made us get in the wave, we need to get in the wave. So tomorrow, we need you again. Put on your marching boots, and go get in the wave.
God bless you.