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60 years ago, nine black students were escorted by federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School to integrate the school. Ernest Green, the first African American to graduate from Central, spoke to the AP about his experience. (Sept. 25) AP

Former President Bill Clinton speaks during the commemoration ceremony on the 60th Anniversary of Integration at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Clinton told surviving members of the Little Rock Nine on Monday that they could wear dancing shoes to celebrate their integration of Central High School but must be ready to don marching boots as struggles for equality continue.(Photo: Mitchell Pe Masilun, Associated Press)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Little Rock Central High School and the entire city on Monday marked the 60th anniversary of the school’s integration with a ceremony the city had been preparing for more than a year.

Monday’s ceremony in the school’s auditorium included remarks from eight of the Little Rock Nine, state and city dignitaries, and former President Bill Clinton. Former student Jefferson Thomas died in 2010, so an empty seat stood amid the group, beneath a sash of black and old gold — the school’s colors.

In his keynote address, Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, said the lessons of the Little Rock Nine went beyond white and black. 

“You taught us that in economics and in social policy and in politics, addition is better than subtraction, and multiplication is better than division,” Clinton said. “So, celebrate today. Put on your dancing shoes, but tomorrow … tomorrow, we need you again. Put on your marching boots.”

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“The only way we can have true reconciliation is if we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared past,” said Elizabeth Eckford, the subject of well-known photos that show her walking toward the high school on Sept. 4, 1957, during an aborted attempt to integrate the school, accompanied by jeers and shouted racial slurs. Gov. Orval Faubus had called in the state National Guard to block the path of the nine black students, who had been recruited for the task by Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP.

 (Photo: UPI)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower subsequently overruled Faubus, and on Sept. 25, 1957, the group of teenagers who just wanted to be included and educated arrived at Little Rock Central High School in the backs of Army Jeeps.

The black students entered an all-white school for the first time in Arkansas, in one of the most visible tests of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that desegregated the nation’s public schools.

“Making history is not something we aspired to do,” said Ernest Green, who in 1958 became the first black student to graduate from Little Rock High. “We wanted the best education our parents’ taxes afforded.”

None of them had any idea the courageous steps they took, despite opposition, would change the path of a nation.

“We are now living in a world where we are going back and revisiting the original questions of this country and the original things that tore this country apart,” Clinton said.

Now, the very school that once opposed the young black students celebrates their fight for civil rights and sacrifice. Even attendees very familiar with the story remain in awe of the legacy.

“The integration of Central High was so early in the civil rights movement. It was before the many of the counter sit-ins and was before the (Freedom) bus rides,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said at the ceremony.

“I feel like I’m visiting a religious shrine,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. of the Hutchins Center at Harvard, told the crowd of 2,000. “This is a shrine. These are the saints.”

Former President Bill Clinton, center, poses for a photo with the remaining members of the Little Rock Nine, from left, Melba Pattillo Beals, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls Lanier, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Ernest G. Green, Elizabeth Eckford, and Thelma Mothershed Wair at the end of the commemoration ceremony on the 60th Anniversary of Integration at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (Photo: Mitchell Pe Masilun, Associated Press)

The fight of the Little Rock Nine will continue to serve as an example for generations, both at Central High School and beyond.

“I never thought I would stand here, I can’t really say I feel comfortable being here,” said former student Gloria Ray Kalmark, “but I am here and it feels pretty good.”

While Monday’s ceremony commemorated the students’ first day of school, Karlmark spoke briefly about the final day of the 1957-58 school year.

“Nobody ever asks about the last day,” she said. “On the last day of school, they handed out the yearbooks. … I had my book and I knew people signed each other’s books, but there I was, now a 15-year-old little girl, and ‘Who was going to sign my book? Who would I dare go up to and ask to sign my book?’

“I sat there for a while with my book open and then Becky, a girl I had secretly exchanged notes with, she came up and signed my book. But then another girl came and signed my book. She wrote, ‘In a different age, we could have been friends.’”

Contributing: Kelly P. Kissel, Associated Press