Vision for the Future: Little Rock’s National Historic Landmark

March 21, 2012 Updated: March 21, 2013

Little Rock rocked with activity. It was as if the spotlight of world attention focused on the Arkansas state capitol once more as the anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School unfolded. Former presidents and presidential hopefuls, the governor and former governors, members of Congress and former members of Congress, mayors and dignitaries from around the nation gathered to pay tribute to nine older Americans whose historic walk through the gauntlets of violent and angry mobs, escorted by troops of the 101st Airborne Division, marked American history forever.

Central High School, a former Mobil gas station and now a magnificent new visitor and interpretive center, have been designated a National Historical Landmark. The sites are overseen by the Park Service under the overall jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Then Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, a driving force getting the Center opened, was present. He described not only the awesome responsibility of that department to preserve and maintain sites of historic interest in America but a vision of America that is the living legacy of that history.

“We’re very proud of this National Park Service visitor center. This panorama looks out at living history. Rather than look out at where history occurred it is where history is continuing to be made,” then Secretary Kempthorne said.

The view was across toward Central High School where current students  gathered on folding chairs to hear the address by former president Bill Clinton and the Little Rock 9. Nine former students, all older Americans now, some frail and some with disabilities, all with dignity, were on a large temporary stage built over the school’s reflecting pool. These nine, were the first to integrate the school. 

There was respect from people gathered, not to taunt them for being black and intruding on an all white high school, but respect for them as human beings that survived their ordeal with dignity, obtained an education, lived and live productive lives in society. 

Secretary Kempthorne, who was a former Governor of Idaho and former Mayor of Boise, spoke quietly, reflecting on the contrast and the hope for America. 

The brand new Park Service visitor center created interactive displays with documentary film footage and vivid photographs that depicted terrible violence fifty years ago. Historic photographs showed what occurred on the very street where this new center was built. 

Central High School still stands, just as it did then, a stately brick and mortar building fronted by a reflecting pool and concrete statues over the portico that bear the legends: Ambition, Personality, Opportunity and Preparation.

“It was an emotional day, yesterday,” the Secretary reflected privately, sitting in a corner of the visitor center. “Each and every day was a challenge. They started out and finished what they set out to do. They obtained an education, went on to college…the visitor center will remind people of what took place here,” he said.

Dirk Kempthorne’s animated blue eyes took in the carefully created displays around him and the momentous role the center now plays insuring that this sordid aspect of America’s past is not prologue. 

This historical documentary exposes racism for its rude exercise of violence, hatred and power over the helpless. History can instruct, but only with love can its lessons allay the worst elements in human relations. To this end the Department of the Interior’s responsibility is shouldered with a sense of reverence.

“The building has different elements to it. It goes back and talks about the promise of America. Both entrances bear quotations from the Fourteenth Amendment . What happened fifty years ago in Little Rock fulfilled the Constitution, the words were true. President Eisenhower called out the 101st Airborne to enforce the Constitution. The magnificent words of the Constitution do not happen automatically…it does require courage. It does require sacrifice. It is important so that we do not take anything for granted. The struggles and the strife that individual citizens have put forward to achieve status of equality, we talk about it so that we can treat each other with greater dignity and respect, and can share a greater sense of our future together…America continues to have challenges of people living together. The words of the Constitution have to be backed up by action,” Kempthorne said.

He was not addressing an audience. He did not have a microphone attached to television cameras in his hands. He was sitting quietly, reflecting on the work around him. Reflecting on work done and work yet to do. He was only a six year old boy when the events unfolded in Little Rock fifty years ago. He became a cabinet member not only dedicated to preserving history as it was but insuring that it prevails as a lesson of wrong conduct not a true reflection of the American ideal and values under law.

“We must treat each other with dignity and respect…Rather than taking it all for granted…” the Secretary of the Interior said, coming back to the theme of individual responsibility for preserving democracy. 

“There are challenges to make sure equal protection of the law is applied so that everyone has an equal opportunity. Do we care for each other? Do we apply the principles of the Golden Rule and remind our children so that when that generation then assumes a leadership role, the lessons of the past are not lost and therefore have to be re-experienced. Some of these chapters we hope are not revisited except by historians and people who are looking at the realities of what happened in the past,” Kempthorne said. It was a fair challenge to all Americans.

The Department of the Interior has major responsibilities to the First Peoples of the land. “We need to recognize that they are sovereign tribes. The Department of the Interior has trust responsibilities for the tribes and that must be taken very seriously. Other than the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior is the only department that runs schools. Budgets must contain initiatives specific to the classrooms in Indian Country so that all children in America have the tools so they can make their dreams come true,” the former Secretary said.

A look of concern crossed his face. A thought was in mind that is a dire challenge that cuts across every level of society and affects every person in society today.

“Methamphetamines. The other thing that is happening in Indian Country is that they are being decimated by the drug cartels with methamphetamine. Because of their often remote locations, because of their unemployment rates, they have been targeted. The budget contained an initiative for $15 million than will allow us to augment significantly the law enforcement capabilities of Indian Country so we can go right at the drug cartels…Indian leaders say this is the second smallpox epidemic,” Kempthorne said.

A dramatic and powerful statement from a cabinet official and a candid admission of societal dilemmas facing young and old, rich and poor, regardless of color or race: drug addiction. The lucrative drug traffic has promoted its evil throughout society worldwide.

“The combined efforts of the methamphetamine initiative with the education initiative I believe is a two pronged effective approach…We have to do it because we have to think of all of the citizens of the country so that nobody is left behind,” he said.

“When I first arrived Sunday night I went to visit the center here and walked to the high school. It’s a beautiful building. I walked up the steps and looked at the four statues. That building was built with a lot of hope. That hope was challenged fifty years ago. I walked through that school yesterday. Goodness they believe in themselves. That is an atmosphere children ought to believe in and ought to have. Fifty years ago the Little Rock 9 were separated into separate classrooms. They had individual courage,” Kempthorne said.

“I was six years old in 1957. I don’t believe I was aware of events in Little Rock at the time. As I grew up, then I became much more familiar…I went to school in southern California. I was the student body president. There were times when there was tension. I talked with black leaders and asked ‘How do we get things back together.’ Yet I found that even in those times of tension there can still be respect for one another if you have sown the seeds of respect,” he added.

The Little Rock 9 were hosted on the top floor Club Level of the luxurious Peabody Little Rock Hotel. One roomed in the Presidential Suite. It would have been impossible for blacks to even enter through the front door of a grand hotel such as The Peabody 50 years ago.

“Who among us wouldn’t benefit from having one of the Little Rock 9 sit down with us. Go and grasp what is positive. The Little Rock 9 is synonymous with nine heroes, all patriots,” Dirk Kempthorne said. 

He admired a photograph of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe hung on a column in the new visitor center. Chief Joseph’s words spoken in 1879, were quoted beneath his picture: “The earth is the mother of all people and all people should have equal rights upon it.” 

“All patriots,” the former Secretary of the Interior said. Fine words that underscore the importance of American ideals and the Constitutional mandates that set us free.

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Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and are not necessarily representative of Epoch Times.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Christopher Fine investigated government activities around the world while attached to the U.S. State Department’s Inspector General’s Office. He served in many posts including Special Counsel to U.S. Senate Investigating Committee and Senior Assistant District Attorney in New York County.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.