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Cotton Honors Little Rock Nine on the Senate Floor

May 23, 2017

In September, we'll mark the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine-the nine African-American students who enrolled in the then-all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Ask anybody who lived through the crisis, and they'll tell you they remember it vividly. They may not have been there in person. But they remember the photos-those searing images of an angry mob, the stoic students, and the bayoneted troops, all gathered at a high school-of all places. Perhaps the most searing image is of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine, who was then only 15 years old. She didn't get word that the other students were going as a group, so she went alone, in a simple black-and-white dress she'd made just for the occasion. The mob baited her, menaced her, cursed her-some even threatened to lynch her. She later said of her walk to the school's entrance: "It was the longest block I ever walked in my whole life."

I think it's of the highest importance that we preserve their story and share it with our kids. It's a reminder of some pretty sad times in our history-but more important, of the courage shown by nine young Arkansans, who helped our state and our nation overcome deep-seated prejudices by appealing to the better angels of our nature.

We preserve historic battlefields like Yorktown and Gettysburg because we want our children to know what it took to gain and keep our freedom-the sacrifices made, the hardships endured. But equally important is preserving historic sites like Central High-where our citizens began the long road to freedom from oppression and intolerance.

That's why we made Central High School an historic site years ago-though with one oversight. There are seven homes across the street from the school. Their exteriors were in many of the pictures that are now so famous. There's long been a movement to preserve those exteriors so that future generations will be able to see Central High exactly as it looked when the Little Rock Nine arrived for school.

I'm proud to say that, today, I introduced a bill with three of my colleagues-the senior senator of Vermont, Senator Pat Leahy; Congressman French Hill of Little Rock; and civil-rights legend, Congressman John Lewis-that would do just that. It would extend the boundary of the Central High historic site to include these seven homes.

It would add about an acre and a half to the park, though I should say this bill wouldn't authorize the federal government to take ownership of the homes-and it wouldn't allow the National Park Service to buy them in the future. Instead, it would encourage the homeowners and the National Park Service to work together to preserve these homes so future generations could see them and learn from them.

That's one reason why our bill has the support of the homeowners, the Central High neighborhood association, and my state's historic-preservation-advocacy group, Preserve Arkansas. All three have written to me to express their support for the bill, and Mr. President, I'd like to ask unanimous consent to submit their letters into the record. There is widespread agreement in the community-and in our state-that this site is not just a part of Arkansas's history; it's part of our national heritage.

Central High stands as a reminder of an article Billy Graham published during the crisis: "There is no color line in heaven." It was a hard-won lesson, and one I think we should do everything we can to pass on to the next generation.