Civil Rights Pioneers Honored

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AP
The Little Rock Nine will be honored for their collective bravery more than 40 years ago, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer. President Clinton, who has often spoken of the shame of segregation in his home state, will give them the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.

The Nov. 9, 1999, afternoon ceremony will be a reunion at the White House for the nine who integrated an Arkansas schoolhouse in 1957.

One of the Nine, Minnie Jean Brown Trickey, recalled a feeling of defiance as she faced the taunts in '57.

"I'm staying. I'm going be here," she told CBS Radio News she remembers thinking. "I don't care what you come up with. You can think of anything you want but I will stay."

Ernest Green, the first black graduate of Central High, notes full racial equality is still a dream.

"It is a goal that we probably still have to continue to press for," he said.

Melba Pattillo Beals hasn't forgotten the jeers and threats she and eight other black teen-agers faced as they integrated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 under Army escort.

"The most beautiful part of this medal is that a diverse Congress voted for it," said Beals, a 58-year-old writer now living in Sausalito, Calif. "Not one black man, or one white man, or one woman, but everyone (in Congress) voted for it."

Beals remembered what it was like to integrate her state capital city's high school three years after the Supreme Court's ruling, in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., ended deliberate racial division of the nation's schools.

That first day in 1957, Beals and her companions did not make it into the building; the crowd was too hostile. The second day, they had to be pulled after two hours.

They were teen-agers and just wanted to belong, Beals said, and their adult adviser, Daisy Bates, did everything she could to make them feel as if they did.

"She was a fireball," Beals said of Bates, who died Thursday at age 84.

The long-planned White House ceremony unexpectedly conflicted with Tuesday's funeral for Bates, who had brought the youngsters to her home before their walk to school for encouragement that helped them face the taunts and jeers.

Beals said Green returned Monday to Little Rock to pay the group's respects before returning to Washington for Tuesday's medal cermony.

"She would not want to stop us at anything," Beals said in a telephone interview. "She would have said, `Go for it.'"

The Little Rock Nine have followed varied paths that include homemaker, consultant, real estate broker. But Tuesday they come together for the White House ceremony.

Medals signifying the highest civilian honor given by Congress were struck for Beals; Green, of Washington; Elizabeth Eckford, of Little Rock; Jefferson Thomas, of Anaheim, Calif.; Terrence Roberts, of Los Angeles; Carlotta Walls Lanier, of Englewood, Colo.; Minnijean Brown Trickey, of Ontario, Canada; Gloria Ray Karlmark, of Amsterdam, Netherlands; and Thelma Mothershed-Wair, of Belleville, Ill.

"I am humbled and overwhelmed to be in this group of people," Beals said.

But recent news means she and others who believe in desegregation will have to work harder, she said.

A recent Harvard study of school enrollment patterns since 1968, when many school districts began court-ordered desegregation programs, found a trend toward resegregation of the races growing despite rising numbers of minority enrollments. Children are being concentrated by poverty and race, the report said.

"If they had lived through such degradation as I did," Beals said of desegregation opponents, "they would not forget what a lack of opportunity can do to you. It pains me to think that we are going in reverse."

Much like the scared teen-ager who walked beside an armed paratrooper 42 years earlier, however, Beals still speaks of her hope that all children will have equal educations: "If Congress can vote me a congressional medal, it affirms my belief that the glass is half-full and not half-empty. And no matter what the decisions are today, we can make it work."

The civilian Congressional medals have been given to more than 100 people, including Rosa Parks, Billy Graham and Mother Theresa. They are approved by votes in the House and the Senate.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report