The Rock on the River

Little Rock AR May 2019-1

Little Rock is located on the Arkansas River and has the largest population of any city in the state. The early French travelers along the river dubbed it “Petite Roche” (“the little rock” in French) because of a small rock formation nearby. Over time, the given name stuck and today the capital of the State of Arkansas is called Little Rock.

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We were able to get reservations at the Downtown Riverside RV Park that was established by the city. This helped make our visit more enjoyable. This is not a fancy place, but the location is what makes it special. The campground was situated on the banks of the Arkansas River directly across from the city center. During the day, we could see downtown Little Rock and enjoy the being near the river. In the evenings, the bridges that cross the river are lit with multicolored lights that change colors. It was a beautiful sight.

Little Rock has many interesting attractions but the two most famous ones are the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. We set out to see both of these while we were there.

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The day after we arrived, we decided to visit the Clinton Library. It was easily accessible from our campground because we were camped at the base of the pedestrian bridge that led to the Library’s entrance. Originally an 1899 railroad bridge, the bridge was converted into a pedestrian bridge over the river connecting North Little Rock to Little Rock. It opened in 2011 and is a popular walkway and biking pathway. It is part of the 30 acre Clinton Presidential Park. Prior to being selected as the site for the Clinton Library, this riverfront area was an old warehouse district. Those buildings were removed to create the present day park. We saw many people enjoying the bike paths and trails. There is also an amphitheater, gardens, and playgrounds, too. The locals told us that the Library and the Park also resulted in the revitalization of downtown Little Rock.

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The William J. Clinton Library and Archives opened in 2004. To highlight President Clinton’s slogan, “a bridge to the future,” the building is designed to look like a bridge. Due to its environmentally friendly design, it is a LEED certified building as well.

The exhibits inside point to many of President Clinton’s accomplishments and failures. There is an 110 foot timeline and fourteen alcoves that highlight events that occurred during his eight year presidency. Some of those include the Oklahoma City bombing and attempts to secure peace in both Northern Ireland and in the Middle East. It was interesting to note that his policies resulted in significant economic prosperity and thus he was able to both balance the federal budget and to secure a budget surplus during his term in office.

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There are other exhibits dedicated to the correspondence and gifts that the Clintons received from many constituents as well as foreign dignitaries and famous celebrities.

Full-sized replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room are very popular with visitors to the Museum. We saw numerous school groups touring the Library and they especially enjoyed sitting in the assigned seats of different cabinet members around the large boardroom table. They were also thrilled to see the Oval Office and the replica of President Clinton’s desk. (You were not allowed to sit in the President’s chair in the Oval Office and you could not take any photos of the Oval Office replica either.) Actually David and I enjoyed sitting in the Cabinet Room chairs. I got to sit in the President’s chair and David sat in the Secretary of State’s chair.

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There are free tours led by docents and we joined one of them. Also, there is an orientation video that we saw. If you do not want to do either, you can always explore the exhibits on your own. We did some of both.

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We spent the better part of a day looking around the Clinton Library. While there, we were reminded of the many international and national events that occurred during the Clinton presidency (1993-2001). We found the Clinton Library to be a fascinating place to explore.

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As a follow up to our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we wanted to go and see the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. Since the high school is still operational, the only way to visit it is to schedule a guided tour lead by a National Parks ranger. The tour is free but you do have to call in advance to secure a spot.

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Our ranger was from Little Rock and he had met some of the Little Rock Nine because several of them still live in the area. He was very effective in helping us to understand the events that unfolded there in 1957. After the Supreme Court passed the landmark legislation Brown v. Board of Education which declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional, there were nine black students who wanted to attend the all white high school. The governor and school board created many obstacles to dissuade them from attending but they were undeterred. When they sought to attend the high school, there was so much unrest that it created a national emergency. President Eisenhower had to send federal troops in to restore order and to protect the students. When the students were finally admitted, they had to have guards accompany them while in school. Even so they were still verbally and physically abused during school hours. The black students had been told that they could not fight back even when they were assaulted because they would be expelled. As a result, they endured many difficult days at Little Rock Central High.

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As part of the tour, we were allowed to enter Little Rock Central High School, but could not take photographs. We were ushered into the auditorium. There we observed students of many ethnicities who were busy with their projects. Today this high school is fully integrated due in part to the actions of nine brave black children.

This tour and experience was very moving and brought to life some of what we had learned in the National Civil Rights Museum. We are amazed by these students’ courage. Despite all of the obstacles and trials, the Little Rock Nine all graduated from high school. Ernest Green was the first black Little Rock Central High School graduate and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended his graduation. All of these students went on to lead productive lives after graduation. Many of them went on to earn college degrees and advanced degrees in a variety of fields of study. They were truly exceptional individuals. President Bill Clinton honored each of the Little Rock Nine by presenting them with the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. Likewise, President Barack Obama honored them by inviting them to attend his inauguration in 2008.

Little Rock, Arkansas was a pleasant surprise. This stop on our journey west proved to be inspirational and thought-provoking.  We also liked its open green spaces, its museums and history, and its riverfront views.

4 thoughts on “The Rock on the River

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