President-elect Barack Obama has said the Little Rock Nine's courage in desegregating an Arkansas public school helped make the opportunities in his life possible.
Now, most of those same trailblazing African-American civil rights pioneers will get a chance to watch in person on Tuesday as Obama breaks the ultimate color barrier and is sworn in as the nation's first black president.
"This is going to change everything," said Terrence Roberts, one of the nine black students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. "To look at a man of color and call him president, it's something that I never thought I would see in my lifetime."
Obama has repeatedly praised the efforts of the Little Rock Nine, who made civil rights history after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional.
Mob threatens lynching
An enraged white mob yelled, spit and threatened to lynch Roberts, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, Carlotta Walls, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Patillo if they tried to go to school. President Dwight Eisenhower sent U.S. troops to Little Rock to enforce the ruling and protect the students, who endured the taunts to desegregate the school.
"Fifty years ago, nine young men and women showed the world that in the face of impossible odds, ordinary people could do extraordinary things," Obama said last year.
The Little Rock Nine and the Tuskegee Airmen — the country's first black military pilots and ground crew — received special invitations to the inauguration in recognition of their contributions to society.
Obama's achievements are the result of the Little Rock Nine's actions, just as the Little Rock Nine have to give credit to their civil rights predecessors, Melba Patillo Beals said.
"I think the stage will be shared with the ghosts of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks and (Mohandas) Ghandi," Beals said. "We all stand up on each other's shoulders. ... There's nobody along this trail who doesn't deserve a little piece of the kudos for where we are today."
Beals and Eckford are the only two of the Little Rock Nine who won't be present, Roberts said.
Fear of crowds, health problems
Eckford told The Associated Press this month that her anxiety among large crowds would leave her unable to enjoy the historic moment when the country's first black president is sworn in. "I'm comfortable with crowds only when they're in front of me," she said.
And Beals said Monday that a recent operation would make it impossible for her to attend. But she said she would be glued to a television, tears streaming down her face as Obama takes his inaugural oath.
"I never expected God to give us a gift like this," she said. "He's saying, 'Look at where your road has led us.'"