Wayne Williams, other secretaries of state, honor Little Rock Nine

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams and four members of the Little Rock Nine who were honored during the National Association of Secretaries of State conference Sunday in Washington, D.C. Left to right, Williams, Melba Pattillo Beals, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Elizabeth Eckford and Ernest Green. (SOS photo)

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.”

Read moreWayne Williams, other secretaries of state, honor Little Rock Nine

Secretary Wayne Williams finds future and past in Little Rock

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams visited Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 2017, where nine black school children made history in 1957 during a nationally watched battle over integration. (Wayne Williams photo)

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams often tells the story of how the high school he attended once shut done rather than integrate, and during a technology conference in Arkansas this week he got to see where the public showdown first began.

At the conference, Williams also got to ride in a self-driving vehicle and heard from the “Elliot Ness of cyber crime.”

As for the school, a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering the integration of public schools was met with hostility. In Little Rock, nine black students were denied entrance to all-white Central High School, forcing a very public conflict between President Eisenhower and the Arkansas governor.

Wayne Williams in high school.

At Warren High School in Virginia, where Williams graduated in 1981, the school board decided to close the school rather than allow blacks to attend, which is why there was no graduating Class of 1959.

Williams said the area was still mired in backward thinking when he first attended school, which created an economic decline in the town, which is why he first got involved in politics.

“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.”

Read moreSecretary Wayne Williams finds future and past in Little Rock