The Little Rock Nine, racial equality trailblazers as teenagers who overcame opposition to become the first Black students to enroll at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, receieved the inaugural La Petite Roche Global Service Award from the Rotary Club of Little Rock on Tuesday.
Their experiences served as a test of the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, drawing international attention to Little Rock and the civil rights movement.
Then-Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Black students from entering Central High. Eventually, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by federalizing the National Guard and sending units of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, where they escorted the Black students into the school. The military remained on campus for the remainder of the school year.
The Little Rock Nine members are Melba Pattillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown Trickey, and Thelma Mothershed Wair. Thomas died in 2010. They were awarded a bronze sculpture depicting a pebble starting a ripple in water.
The bronze sculptures were engraved with the words: "Making ripples, like a single pebble, that can cause a wave of change. Acts of kindness and courage have the power that creates an impact that ripples through a community, nation and even the world."
The La Petite Roche Global Service Award, presented by the Rotary Club of Little Rock in partnership with the city of Little Rock, "was designed to pay tribute to those around the world that have made a significant difference in their own community and nation," the club said in a press release.
At the event, Denver Peacock, Rotary Club President, quoted poet Maya Angelou, who grew up partly in rural Arkansas:
"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."
Stephanie Streett, executive director for the Clinton Foundation, read a letter from President Bill Clinton, who was 11 years old and living in Hot Springs in 1957.
"On that day in 1957, when you walked through the doors of Central High School amid vicious harassment, you created ripples that became waves of change, not just in the United States, but around the world. And your commitment to advancing civil rights, policy and a more just education for all has been unwavering over the last 65 years. I remain grateful for and inspired by your extraordinary courage and determination. And I can think of no better inaugural recipients of this service award than my friends we all love. Elizabeth, Ernest, Gloria, Carlotta, Jefferson, Terrence, Melba, Minnijean and Thelma."
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders submitted a video message for the event, referring in part to a 40th annual commemoration in 1997 of the Little Rock Nine, stating:
"I will never forget my time as a student at Little Rock Central High when my dad, Mike Huckabee, and President Bill Clinton held the doors open to you, the doors that 40 years earlier had been closed simply because of the color of your skin."
"I'm so proud," Sanders said, that "the Arkansas children that were once barred from the schoolhouse are now heroes memorialized in bronze at our state house. You are a living testament to the progress our state and our country made and you continue to inspire us to providequality education for all students, no matter their background. Thank you for your continued service to our state."
LaNier, who flew in from Denver for the event, said she became very emotional when she first got the letter about her being a recipient of the award. It was indicative that the city of Little Rock understands the Nine's "value," she added.
"It was great that they even thought of us," she said. "Inaugural awards are wonderful, and it really does remind me of the 40th anniversary because that was the first time we were really being considered in a positive manner here by the community. It was like bringing people together, and I was very appreciative of that. That was moving then, as well as this."
Green, who served as the assistant secretary of labor for President Carter, flew in from Washington, D.C., to receive the award.
"The period of time I grew up in Little Rock, it takes a lot of leap forward to realize, that the Rotary Club, when I was a student, wouldn't have highlighted the achievement that we made going to Central. I feel honored by the fact that they took the step forward."