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Little Rock Nine given Marquette’s highest honor

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Six of the Little Rock Nine members attended an awards ceremony Tuesday, where they accepted the university's highest honor.

Tuesday’s heavy snowfall couldn’t dampen the spirit inside the sold-out Varsity Theatre, where students and community members watched as members of the Little Rock Nine were awarded Marquette’s highest honor.

In 1957, the Little Rock Nine took a stand against racial segregation in public schools by enrolling at the all-white Little Rock Central High School.

Of the nine original members, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Terrence Roberts, Minnijean Brown Trickey and Carlotta Walls LaNier accepted the Pere Marquette Discovery Award during Tuesday’s ceremony. Melba Pattillo Beals, Thelma Mothershed Wair and Jefferson Thomas were not able to attend the event.

During his welcome speech, Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a university trustee and founding director of the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette, recalled watching the Nine on television as a child in Pueblo, Colo.

“The attacks you faced were frightening and vile,” Mitchem said. “Your resolve, your courage and your personal sacrifice empowered me and an entire generation of Americans to strike out for justice and equality.”

The Rev. Robert A. Wild, university president, presented the Nine with their awards.

“We at Marquette believe that recognizing the accomplishments of the Little Rock Nine is not only consistent with our university’s mission and values, but serves, as well, to elevate Marquette’s ongoing Centennial Celebration of Women to a whole new level,” Wild said. “We recognize, of course, that Marquette is far from the first to honor these brave and understated heroes and heroines. They … truly blazed the path to discovery that is clearer than ever today.”

Speaking about equality, Wild said the celebration of co-education at Marquette should encourage people to ask the question: “Who is still standing outside the door knocking?”

“We all wanted a level playing field,” LaNier told the Tribune in an interview Tuesday morning. “It’s no different than it is today.”

After Wild presented the awards and the Marquette University Chorus performed, Mike Gousha, distinguished Fellow in Law and Public Policy at Marquette Law School, moderated a conversation with the Nine.

Eckford recalled how she felt after the first day she tried to enter Central High School, where she and the rest of the Little Rock Nine had been barred from entering by the Arkansas National Guard.

“There are some times in your life when you know you need your mother,” she said. “I was going to my mother.”

The Nine said the reasoning behind their decision to attend Little Rock Central High School seemed obvious to them.

“To me, it was clear,” Karlmark told the Tribune. “I didn’t have to consult my parents about what to do. … Why would you choose to be on the bottom when the law says you have the right to be at that school?”

Despite taunting and threats from mobs outside the school, the Nine persisted in their attempts to enter Central High School.

“I was just determined to go,” LaNier said. “I knew I had a right to be there.”

The awardees also spoke about forgiving those who tormented them.

“I was taught not to hate,” Karlmark said. “I have no trouble forgiving them … I don’t bear any malice towards these people.”

Her companions agreed.

“My mother also told me that I didn’t have enough life force to hate anybody because I just had enough life force to sustain me for the roughly 80 years that I’ll be on the planet,” Roberts said. “That made mathematical sense to me.”

The Nine also reflected on current inequalities in American public schools. They said they felt society needs to place a stronger emphasis on the value of education.

“I use this event as a tapestry to hopefully inspire some young person out there that they can get more out of life than what they’re doing,” Green said.

The awardees also reminded students that racial inequality is not the only inequality worth fighting.

“There’s lots of work for the students of Marquette in that respect,” Karlmark told the Tribune. “Just try to be open to the inclusion, to have empathy, to try to make the world through just the small things you do.”

The Nine’s message encouraged students to step up to the challenges in their own lives.

“We all have our Little Rock Central moment,” Green told the Tribune. “The question is: What do you do with it?”

Jennie Jorgensen contributed to this report.

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