LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Little Rock Nine, once barred from Central High School because they are black, arrived on its soggy campus Tuesday in limousines as the community marked 50 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed soldiers to escort the students inside.
"They didn't ask to be a part of history, but they certainly are now," said U.S. Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas.
Seating was set out for 5,000 people on the front lawn of the inner-city campus, where the high school is now 52 percent black. Classes were canceled Monday and Tuesday to accommodate ceremonies marking the school's integration.
Gov. Mike Beebe said society had made progress since the Central crisis, but he said economic and educational inequalities still exist.
"There will always be a necessity to show that we are inclusive as a society," Beebe said. "The lesson is that we need to make sure that people learn from this event and be as inclusive as possible."
Dale Charles, head of the state NAACP chapter, said the commemoration overstates the progress in race relations. Broad swaths of Little Rock are still predominantly black or predominantly white.
"After today, the lights will go out and people will look at something else. Today is a commercial piece," Charles said.
In September 1957, then-Gov. Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to keep nine black children out of Central High, telling a statewide TV audience that court-ordered integration would spark mob violence. He didn't acknowledge that he helped manufacture the crisis to boost his segregationist credentials.
Outside the school Tuesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the civil rights struggle continues 50 years later in a social system that has "first-class jails and second-class schools."
"We were winning against all odds. Now we're begging youth to attend school," Jackson said.
Gene Prescott, who photographed the school's integration for the Arkansas Gazette in 1957, noted the difference in the crowd over 50 years. The all-white mob 50 years ago jeered the nine; Tuesday's crowd of blacks and whites welcomed them.
"They are mingling and they are shaking hands. That certainly is a change," Prescott said.
Former President Clinton joined the ceremony. Ten years ago, Clinton and then-Gov. Mike Huckabee walked to the front of the school and held the doors open for the Little Rock Nine: Melba Patillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown Trickey and Thelma Mothershed Wair.
Huckabee, now a Republican presidential candidate, said President Bush likely would have attended Tuesday's ceremonies if not for his visit to the United Nations.
"Like all of us, he can only be in one place at one time," Huckabee said. "I'm sure if he hadn't have shown up at the United Nations, there would have been people critical of him."
The U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated classrooms unconstitutional, ruling that many districts were operating education systems that were separate but not equal. By the fall of 1957, the Charleston and Fayetteville school districts had integrated peacefully, but agitators targeted Little Rock for trouble.
For three weeks, Little Rock became the focus of a showdown between Faubus and Eisenhower. Faubus pulled the Guard away, but a crowd gathered outside the school Sept. 23 to prevent it from complying with U.S. District Judge Ronald Davies' desegregation order.
Eisenhower that night authorized the use of federal troops to enforce Davies' order, and members of the 101st Airborne escorted the Little Rock Nine to classes on Sept. 25, 1957.