[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book II)]
[November 6, 1998]
[Pages 1993-1996]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

[[Page 1993]]

Remarks on Signing Legislation To Establish the Little Rock Central High 
School National Historic Site
November 6, 1998

    Thank you very much. You know, when Ernie was up here introducing 
me, I remembered that he was the only senior among the Little Rock Nine. 
He graduated in the spring in 1958, and when they called him up to 
receive his diploma, the whole auditorium was quiet, not a single person 
clapped. But we're all clapping for you today, buddy.
    I would like to thank all the members of the Little Rock Nine who 
are here, including Elizabeth Eckford, Carlotta LaNier, Jefferson 
Thomas, Minnijean Trickey, Terrence Roberts. Melba Pattillo Beals is not 
here. Gloria Ray Karlmark is not here. Thelma Mothershed-Wair is not 
here. I think we should give all of them another hand. [Applause]
    I would like to thank Congressman Elijah Cummings, Congressman 
Gregory Meeks for coming; Mayor Woodrow Stanley of Flint, Michigan; 
Commissioner Edna Bell, the president of the National Association of 
Black County Officials, from Wayne County, Michigan. I'd like to thank 
and welcome the mayor-elect of Washington, DC, Anthony Williams. I told 
him I'd be for more Federal aid if he'd teach me how to tie a bow tie. I 
never learned how to do that.
    I would like to thank Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater and 
the Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt for their presence and 
leadership. And I would like to say a special word of welcome, and 
profound appreciation for his historic role in Tuesday's historic 
turnout of voters, to Reverend Jesse Jackson. Welcome, sir, we're 
delighted to have you here.
    I thank the United States Marine Band, as always, for their great 
performance, on the occasion of John Philip Sousa's birth anniversary. 
And let me say a special word of welcome again to the White House to the 
magnificent young people of the Eastern High School Choir from 
Washington, DC. Thank you.
    Let me say, since we are here to talk about our reconciliation, I 
hope you will forgive me for taking just a moment--and I know I speak 
for all Americans who are here--to express my sympathy to the people of 
Israel, who this morning were once again the target of a vicious 
terrorist attack. No nation should live under the threat of violence and 
terror that they live under every day.
    When Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat signed the Wye 
River agreement, they knew they would face this moment. They knew when 
they went home both of them would be under more danger and the 
terrorists would target innocent civilians. They knew they would have to 
muster a lot of courage in their people to stick to the path of peace in 
the face of repeated acts of provocation.
    There are some people, you know, who have a big stake in the 
continuing misery and hatred in the Middle East, and indeed everywhere 
else in this whole world, just like some people had a big stake in 
continuing it in Little Rock over 40 years ago.
    I ask for your prayers and support today for the Israelis and the 
Palestinians who believe in this agreement and who are determined to 
carry out their responsibilities and who understand that the agreement 
is the best way to protect the safety of the Israeli people. It was 
tenaciously negotiated, hard fought, but it is the best way to safety 
for the Israelis, the best way to achieve the aspirations of the 
Palestinians, and in the end, the only answer to today's act of criminal 
terror. I hope you will all feel that in your heart.
    Let me say, this is a very, very happy day for the people who were 
part of the Little Rock Nine experience, for the people of Little Rock, 
all the Arkansans who are here, African-Americans from throughout our 
country. There was an earlier reference made by Congressman Bennie 
Thompson--and I thank him for his outstanding leadership in this 
endeavor and for his fine remarks today--about the election.
    Now, most of the publicity about the election has been the enormous 
turnout of African-American citizens in a midterm election that resulted 
in the victories that have been well publicized for non-African-American 
elected officials. And having been one of those on several occasions, I 
am immensely grateful. [Laughter]
    But what has received less publicity that I would like to point out, 
because this too was

[[Page 1994]]

a part of the road that the Little Rock Nine began to walk for us, is 
that on Tuesday in the State of Georgia, an African-American was elected 
the attorney general of the State, an African-American was elected the 
labor commissioner of the State. And in the South on Tuesday, African-
American Congressmen were reelected in majority white districts, with 
large majority--large majority. That is a part of the road we have 
walked together, a part of what we celebrate today.
    There are so many here who played a role in it. One more person I 
would be remiss if I did not recognize, that Hillary and I love so much 
and are so grateful to, is the wonderful Dr. Dorothy Height, chairman of 
the National Commission of Negro Women. Thank you for being here, 
Dorothy. Let's give her a big hand. [Applause] Thank you, and bless you.
    Ladies and gentlemen, there is only one bittersweet element in this 
magnificent moment for Hillary and for me, and that is that we are 
celebrating the last piece of legislation passed by our good friend Dale 
Bumpers. We have walked a lot of steps together since I first met Dale 
Bumpers about 25 years ago when he was Governor. And we've had a lot of 
laughs at each other's expense. After I became President, just to make 
sure that I didn't get the big head, he went around Washington 
introducing me to people as the second-best Governor Arkansas ever had. 
[Laughter] Today I told him that I hadn't had much time to review my 
remarks and, therefore, hadn't had the opportunity to delete all the 
nice things that had been written for me to say about him. [Laughter]
    But I do want to tell you that this is a truly astonishing public 
servant. Hillary and I admire him, admire his wife Betty, admire the 
things that he's stood for and she's stood for, and we will miss them. 
Last month, in a final and, as always, brilliant speech on the Senate 
floor, Dale mentioned an inspiring teacher who once stopped him when he 
was reading out loud and said to the whole class, ``Doesn't he have a 
nice voice? Wouldn't it be tragic if he didn't use that talent?'' I 
think it's fair to say that Dale Bumpers has done his teacher proud, 
because he used that eloquent, impassioned voice to make sure that all 
the children of his State and our Nation could make use of their God-
given talents.
    We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his nearly five decades 
of caring, often courageous public service, and I cannot thank him 
    The bill that Senator Bumpers and Congressman Thompson have 
presented to me for signature today recognizes the courage of the Little 
Rock Nine and that of their parents, their leaders, their community 
leaders, especially our great friend Daisy Bates, who could not be here 
    Because of all of them, Central High has become a hallowed place, a 
place every bit as sacred as Gettysburg and Independence Hall. 
Interestingly enough, back in the 1920's, it was voted the most 
beautiful school in America. It is still a functioning school, very much 
so. There are some years when its students comprise 25 percent of our 
State's entire roster of National Merit Scholars. It's a place where 
children can still go and study Greek and Latin, something that's rare 
in all school districts throughout America. It is, I believe, about to 
become the only open, fully operating school that is a National Historic 
    As Ernie said, Hillary and I welcomed the Little Rock Nine back to 
Little Rock on the 30th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock 
Central High School. Then I was profoundly honored to hold open the door 
of the school so they could walk through on the 40th anniversary. Today 
I was able to welcome them all to the White House to the Oval Office and 
now on the South Lawn.
    On the fateful day they slipped into Central High School and were 
removed by the police, President Eisenhower was on vacation in Newport. 
When he learned what had happened to them, and that Governor Faubus had 
turned over the streets to the mob, he realized that--even as a 
conservative--the Federal Government had to act. The next day he flew 
back to the White House. His helicopter landed just a few steps from 
here. He had just ordered General Maxwell Taylor to put the might of the 
101st Airborne Division behind their righteous march through the doors 
of Central High.
    Now, thanks to Senators Bumpers and Congressman Thompson, and many 
others, as they said, our Nation has found two very fitting ways to 
honor that march to ensure that the memory of the Little Rock Nine and 
all they represent remains alive long after those of us with living 
memories are gone.

[[Page 1995]]

    As part of the budget I signed 2 weeks ago, I was authorized to 
confer Congressional Gold Medals, the highest civilian honor the 
Congress can bestow, on each and every member of the Little Rock Nine. 
It was only a few months ago that we presented President Nelson Mandela 
with that same award, and he spoke so movingly of his long struggle to 
tear down the walls of apartheid. The Little Rock Nine broke through the 
doors of apartheid. I can't wait until the artists finish creating your 
medals and we can bestow them upon you, an honor you richly deserve.
    And then, of course, the main reason we're here today is to make a 
living monument forever out of the setting of your struggle. Again, I 
thank Senator Bumpers and all the others. The bill will allow the 
National Park Service to work with the community to maintain and protect 
Central High's magnificent building. It will also allow the Park Service 
to start acquiring land in the surrounding neighborhood to create new 
facilities where people can learn about the origins and the aftermath of 
the 1957 crisis, topics that simply can't be fully explored in the 
existing visitor center's limited space.
    Children will never fully understand what you experienced in 1957. 
Maybe that's not such a bad thing. But they need to know. And now, for 
all time to come, children will have an opportunity to walk the stairs 
you walked, to see the angry faces you braved, to learn of your 
sacrifice, and about what, as a result of your sacrifice, you, your 
fellow Arkansans, and your Nation have become. Perhaps they will even 
see what it was about the Little Rock confrontation that made racial 
equality a driving obsession for so many of us who were young at the 
time and seared by it.
    Again, I want to thank you for staying together over these 40-plus 
years now, for being willing to show up and be counted and to remind us, 
for showing us the shining example of your lives so that we could never 
forget all those who went before you who never had the chance that you 
gave to all who came after.
    Monuments and medals are important reminders of how far we have 
come, but it is not enough. The doors of our schools are open, but some 
of them are falling off their rusty hinges. And many of them are failing 
the students inside. The economy has never been stronger, but there are 
still striking disparities in jobs, in investments in neighborhoods, in 
education, and criminal justice. Still too many break down along what 
W.E.B. Du Bois first called the color line. And while the Little Rock 
Nine have enjoyed great success in business, in the media, in education, 
they can tell you that in spite of what we celebrated on Tuesday, there 
is still discrimination and hatred in the hearts of some Americans.
    All of that we found in our Presidential initiative on race. And we 
must never forget that it is our continuing obligation to the Little 
Rock Nine and all others who brought us to this point to fight this 
    The last point I want to make to you is that the face of America is 
changing and changing fast. I went to an elementary school last Saturday 
to talk about the need to build and modernize our schools. There were 
children from 24 nations there. The principal said, ``Mr. President, 
we're so glad to have you here, and we've got all the parents here. I 
only wish that we could have translated your talk into Spanish and 
    America is changing, and it is a good thing, if we remember to live 
by the ideals on which this country was founded, if we remember the 
sacrifices of the Little Rock Nine, if we listen to our teachers, like 
Dr. John Hope Franklin. We, in other words, have a whole new chapter in 
the Nation's march to equality to write.
    Remember what Senator Bumpers' teacher said, ``Wouldn't it be tragic 
if he didn't use that talent?'' That's exactly what the struggle for one 
America is all about, because that is a question that should be asked of 
every single child in our country.
    When we ask that question with the Little Rock Nine in mind, it 
helps us to keep our eyes on the prize, the prize of true equality and 
true freedom, that ever elusive, always worth seeking, more perfect 
    These people that we honor today, in the school we save today for 
all time, have given us all a great and treasured gift. May God bless 
them and the United States.
    Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:43 a.m. in the South Lawn at the White 
House. In his remarks, he referred to Ernest Green, one of the Little 
Rock Nine; civil rights activists Rev. Jesse Jackson and Daisy Bates; 
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel; and Chairman Yasser Arafat 
of the Palestinian Authority. S. 2232, approved

[[Page 1996]]

November 6, was assigned Public Law No. 105-356.