Little Rock 40th anniversary puts focus on reconciliation

by Russell N. Dilday, posted Friday, September 26, 1997 (21 years ago)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)??"I thought it was pretty unique in that it let you realize what is important about that day 40 years ago," noted Shelly, 18, of North Little Rock, Ark. Shelly was one of thousands who attended a Racial Reconciliation Rally Sept. 21 at Riverfront Amphitheater in Little Rock.

The rally was held during the week of the 40th anniversary of the controversial integration of Little Rock schools. The city gained worldwide attention in September 1957, when nine black students entered Little Rock's Central High School under the protection of federal troops.

The anniversary included a Sept. 25 ceremony in which President Bill Clinton, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and other dignitaries welcomed the nine students back to Central High.

"Forty years ago today," Clinton said, "they climbed these steps, passed through this door and moved our nation. And for that we must all thank them."

Huckabee, a former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention whose daughter, Sarah, is a sophomore this year at Central High, stated, "What happened here 40 years ago was simply wrong. It was evil. And we renounce it."

The Sept. 21 racial reconciliation rally "made us realize that it doesn't matter what skin color you are," said Shelly's friend, Kim, who is black. "We're all equal. We put the division in there. There's just a little melanin (skin pigment) separating us."

The rally featured nationally and locally known speakers and entertainers, including world heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, recording artists dc Talk and CeCe Winans and a pre?recorded message by evangelist Billy Graham.

Other featured guests included Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey; youth communicator and former San Diego Charger free safety Miles McPherson; and E.V. Hill, pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

The rally drew an estimated 13,000 from the central Arkansas area and had an atmosphere that was part rock concert, part church service and part picnic.

E.V. Hill gave an evangelistic plea, telling participants that "mankind does not have to be saved. If you turn down what God has done in Jesus Christ, you can go to hell.

"We can't stay here on earth," he added. "One of the things you ought to want to know is where you're going to go before you have to leave here. Today you don't have to go to hell. You can be saved. You can make a decision and it can be made on this historical occasion."

Alluding to the segregation and hate that was evident during the Central High crisis, Hill challenged the audience to let those events occur, chanting, "Never again." The crowd picked up the chant in a deafening roar.

Graham, joining the rally through a videotaped message shown on two large?screens, recalled the "milestone based in history 40 years ago. As the whole world watched, love and reason and righteousness began to prevail."

He added, however, "so much more remains to be done. Today, let us place another milestone ... . God stands ready to forgive us of our mistakes and sins because his Son Jesus Christ paid the penalty in our place.

"Today, let us take a step of faith in our hearts to commit ourselves to God and to make a new commitment to each other for the days ahead," Graham urged.

While many in the audience listened to the speakers, many of the teens and young adults were clearly there to hear Winans and dc Talk. Gospel singer Winans performed during the afternoon, while dc Talk performed as the headline act later in the evening.

When dc Talk was introduced, younger audience members rushed the stage and stayed there throughout the pop?Christian trio's performance of favorites such as REM's "End of the World" and their own smash hit, "Just Between You and Me." The band also performed their new release, "Colored People," a musical comment on racism. The crowd responded most enthusiastically to the title song of their latest album, "Jesus Freak."

Rally participants also heard Evander Holyfield, world heavyweight boxing champion, who retained the title after a much?publicized fight against Mike Tyson.

"Being a Christian and believing in Jesus, I know what reconciliation is all about," Holyfield said. "When you give your life to the Lord, to Jesus Christ because he has paid the price ?? that's what reconciliation is all about.

"Once you have Jesus within, you learn to love yourself, it is easy to love the person that's next to you," Holyfield said. "If Jesus forgave us, we should be able to forgive the people standing next to us and the people who have wronged us.

"I like to talk about what forgiveness really is," he said. "I know a lot of people have seen the fight between Mike Tyson and myself and what you have to understand is that whole fight ... had a lot to do with reconciliation. Just as Mike bit me on the ear, God (told me) the only right thing to do is forgive him."

Huckabee, in comments prior to the anniversary, had declared: "Many government and church leaders in 1957 took the wrong position. Now government and church leaders have the opportunity to take the right position."

He called on church and government leaders to "openly and unapologetically declare that what happened in the past with bigotry was morally wrong." Noting "racism was not only ignored but fostered from the pulpit," he added, "The right thing to do is stand for true justice and true reconciliation."

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