Former President Bill Clinton and gospel and rhythm and blues singer Mavis Staples will headline a long list of events this weekend and Monday to mark the 60 years since the historic Little Rock Central High School was integrated by the Little Rock Nine in 1957.
Clinton will deliver the keynote address at the Little Rock Central High School 60th Anniversary commemoration ceremony at the Roosevelt Thompson Auditorium of the historic high school on Sept. 25. The schedule of events for the 60th anniversary celebration, entitled “Reflections of Progress,” will officially kick off on Friday (Sept. 22) morning with a press conference for the living members of the “Little Rock Nine.”
City officials said the former president, who also served five terms as Arkansas governor, was invited to give the keynote speech because of his long history with the nine black students that made history by desegregating the local high school in 1957. In 1987, Clinton hosted the nine students at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion when they all gathered in Little Rock for the first time since the local high school was integrated. He also was a keynote speaker at the 40th and 50th anniversary commemoration activities, and signed legislation in 1998 as president that designated the high school as a National Historic Site. In 1999, he presented the Little Rock Nine with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award, during a ceremony at the White House.
“We’ve been working hard for the past year and I’m excited that President Clinton will be able to join us as the keynote speaker for the Commemoration Ceremony to honor these living treasures,” Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore said in a statement.
Many of the city-sponsored 60th anniversary activities for the historic Arkansas high school will center around the nine students who have been memorialized at the State Capitol grounds that captures the 1957 event, which is widely recognized as a key moment in the nation’s civil rights movement. There are also a host of other “unofficial” events across the city that will be held at local churches and other venues to commemorate the historic desegregation of the Little Rock high school.
During the 1957 crisis, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to keep the nine students out of the school, though he claimed it was to maintain peace. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and removed them. He replaced them with members of the 101st Airborne, who escorted the students to the school.
However, the Little Rock Nine still endured much hostility during the 1957-1958 school year. Even after that school year was over, a number of schools across the city were closed in 1958-1959 in an effort to keep black students from attending them. Once the schools reopened, there were still efforts to delay the full integration of Little Rock’s public schools.
The Central High students – Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed — are now captured in striking, life-size bronze statuettes directly north of the State Capitol building off West Third Street. All of the students are expected to attend many of the events over the long celebration period except for Thomas, who died in 2010.
Following is a list of the official events for the 60th Anniversary commemoration events:
• Dedication of ‘United’ Sculpture
Sept. 22, 1:30 to 2 p.m., at Little Rock Central High School. Clay Enoch, winner of the 2016 Sculpture at the River Market Public Monument competition will dedicate his “United” figure on the front lawn of Little Rock Central High School. Enoch’s sculpture represents allegorical figures raising their arms to interlock their respective rings in the effort to be “united.”
• Reflections of Progress” Symposium
Sept. 23 from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Clinton Presidential Library. This panel discussion will look at the events leading up to September 1957, the 1957-1958 school year, the “Lost Year” in 1958-1959, and the process of integrating Little Rock’s schools beginning in 1959. Participants have not yet been announced.
• Mavis Staples in Concert
Sept. 23 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Little Rock’s Robinson Auditorium. Rhythm and blues singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples will headline a concert to commemorate the 60th anniversary celebration. Staples is known for her soulful, Delta-influence gospel sound she helped create in the 1950s with her father, Pops, and her brother and sisters as The Staple Singers. Their hit songs that during the Stax era included, “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”
Proceeds from the concert will benefit the nonprofit Little Rock Nine Foundation, which provides direct financial support and a mentorship program for students to help them reach their educational goals.
• Children of the Little Rock Nine Panel
Sept. 24 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Robinson Theater. Co-sponsored by the Clinton School for Public Service and the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, this panel featuring children of the Little Rock Nine will discuss their parents’ role in the history-making crisis and how it has impacted their own lives.
• Reflections of Progress Interfaith Service
Sept. 24 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Robinson Theater. A combination of national and local faith leaders will gather to lead an interfaith service. Participants will represent a broad spectrum of faith backgrounds, including Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended. The event will feature a combined community choir that will music for the program. During the service, there Also during the service, there will be readings from the Bible, the Mishnah Sanhedrin and the Quran.
• Commemoration Ceremony
Sept. 25 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at Little Rock Central High School. President Bill Clinton will deliver the keynote address at the commemoration ceremony, which will culminate the weekend of activities.