President Clinton headlines gala for 9 students who integrated Little Rock school 50 years ago

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (AP) — Former President Bill Clinton and other dignitaries at a gala for the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School a half-century ago stressed the country's continuing need for better race relations.

"It is easy to celebrate the courage of others for what they did 50 years ago. It is another thing all together to build the world our children would like to live in 50 years from now," Clinton told about 1,300 people at the Statehouse Convention Center on Monday.

The gala is part of a series of events this week in the city's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High School.

Clinton said that he remembered hearing about the students' integration under armed guard when he was an 11-year-old boy living 50 miles (80 kilometers) away in Hot Springs.

For three weeks in September 1957, Little Rock was the focus of a showdown over integration as Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus blocked nine black students from enrolling at a high school with about 2,000 white students. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregated classrooms unconstitutional in 1954 — and the Little Rock School Board had voted to integrate — Faubus said he feared violence if the races mixed in a public school.

The showdown soon became a test for then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sent members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division in to control the angry crowds. It was the first time in 80 years that federal troops had been sent to a former state of the Confederacy — the pro-slavery southern states which seceded from the U.S.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater also were in attendance at Monday's gala.

Clinton, whose wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, drew on the field of candidates to illustrate the progress in the country's race relations. Other Democratic hopefuls include Barack Obama, who is black, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic.

"In 2008, we see the rainbow of America. We see a serious African American candidate for president, a serious Hispanic candidate for president and yes, a pretty serious female candidate," Clinton said.

The nine students who integrated the school received standing applause twice during the reception — when they entered the banquet hall and during a viewing of a short documentary about the 1957 crisis.

Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the Little Rock Nine and president of their foundation, said she did not know any of the other students when they integrated the school in 1957 but said they are now her lifelong friends.

"Many have called our actions courageous, but we simply wanted to go to school," LaNier said.

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