Former President Clinton was in his element tonight at the Little Rock Nine Foundation Gala at the Peabody Hotel, singing every verse of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" along with the Central High Madrigal Singers and concluding the evening with an energetic, emphatic and heartfelt tribute to the Nine.
"Look at them," he said of the Nine, seated at the long head table with family and others. "Fifty years later and they are still here with us. We thank God for that." He thanked them for enriching his own life.
He then addressed what he called the "psychological drama at the heart" of strife in the Middle East and around the world.
"Why were those angry white people trying to keep those kids from going to school? Think about it," Clinton said. "The deal was, Arkansas was one of the poorest states in the nation for whites as well as blacks." And the poor whites needed someone to look down on. There is, Clinton said, a"desperate need to believe that somebody is inferior to us. That our differences matter, not our common humanity." Honor the Nine, he told the crowd, by finding common ground and working to make ours a "more perfect union."
Hillary Clinton was unable to introduce her husband as scheduled. She sent her greetings via emcee Gwen Ifill. Sen. Clinton is expected to be in town for Tuesday's commemorative event at Central High at 10 a.m.
Earlier, Carlotta Walls LaNier introduced the nine winners of college scholarships awarded by the Little Rock Nine Foundation, which has received major financial support from Coca-Cola. Commemorative Coke bottles bearing the logo of the 50th anniversary were given to all the guests.
An eight-minute film of the Little Rock Nine was the emotional highpoint of the night in the ballroom of the Peabody Hotel. The audience began to applaud as footage that combined photographs of the Nine as teen-agers and their introduction at the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High began to roll, until the entire room was on their feet, many wiping away tears.