The story of integrating America’s schools is a personal one for Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, who often talks about growing up in Virginia and what inspired him to become involved in politics.
As part of that journey, Williams last year visited the Little Rock, Ark., high school where nine black students were denied entrance to all-white Central High School, forcing a very public conflict between President Eisenhower and the Arkansas governor in 1957.
On Sunday Williams got to shake the hands of four members of what became known as the Little Rock Nine when the group received the highest award possible from the National Association of Secretaries of State. The emotional ceremony reduced the Arkansas secretary of state to tears and had Williams leaping to his feet to give standing ovations to the four.
The Little Rock Nine has received plenty of honors — in 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded each one the Congressional Gold Medal. But what makes the NASS award unique, said Ernest Green, who was present Sunday, is that is comes from elected officials who oversee most of the nation’s elections.
“You are the critical players,” he said, when he accepted the award. “It’s not who we elect to office but how we get that election done.”
The Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award, established in 1992, was named after the former U.S. senator from Maine, who jeopardized her career by speaking out against the red-baiting tactics of Sen. Joseph P. McCarthy in the 1950s. She received the inaugural award from NASS. The following year it was given to Rosa Parks.
“Award recipients are recognized for “individual acts of political courage, uncommon character and selfless action in the realm of public service,” according to National Association of Secretaries of State website.
In addition to Green, also present Sunday at NASS’s winter conference in Washington, D.C., were Elizabeth Eckford, Melba Patille Beals and Carlotta Walls LaNier, who now lives in Colorado. Each addressed the conference.
“Going to Central may have been the easy part,” Green said, noting the difficult part is “making democracy flourish.”
When Williams speaks to groups, from students all the way up to seniors, the Colorado secretary of state talks about how the school board in his town of Front Royal, Va., handled the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The board decided to close schools rather than integrate them.
“That’s why there was no graduating class of 1959,” Williams has said of his alma mater, Warren High School, where he graduated in 1981.
Williams said by the time he got to high school the area was still mired in “backward thinking” that created an economic decline in the town.
“When I was 17 years old I gathered a group of friends together and we passed out literature to everyone walking into a polling place,” Williams often tells young leaders. “And through that we were able to change the power in my area from one party to my party. So I understand the importance of youth involvement.”
Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin became emotional when he introduced the Little Rock Nine as “giants of history” and said it was important to “recognize the symbols of progress.”
The Central High School incident was “a moment of shame” for Arkansas, Martin said. “When you see what they … went through as children, it will burn a hole through a loving person’s heart.”
Eckford is forever memoralized in an iconic photo that shows her walking up to Central High School as white students scream at her. She told NASS that two white students who were in her final class of the day helped get her through that time. She said they talked to her like she was any other student.
Words, she reminded the conference-goers, are powerful. “They could help someone to live another day.”
Beals said after she got a call from Martin’s office about the award, she called her brother and asked, “When did we get a black secretary of state?” Martin, who is white, was clearly touched at her tribute.
After the ceremony, Williams noted that the very first time he visited Little Rock, in 2017, he made it a point to visit Central High School.
“So visiting with four of the heroic Little Rock Nine was an honor. We must all recognize the sacrifice and courage of these young people and all of the others who have helped make our nation both better and stronger,” he said.
“Talking with Ms. LaNier about how easy it is for her to use our business site as a Colorado real estate agent was an added bonus and drove home how far our nation has come.”
LaNier told NASS members of how she had walked by Central High School every day to her all-black inferior school.
“I wanted to go to this school,” she said, “because I had the right.”