This Day in history: The Little Rock Nine prevented from entering a desegregated Arkansas high school in 1957

The students' attendance at the high school was a test of the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional


                            This Day in history: The Little Rock Nine prevented from entering a desegregated Arkansas high school in 1957
(Getty Images)

In 1957, a group of nine Black students who enrolled at a formerly all-White Central High School in Littel Rock, Arkansas, were blocked by Governor Orval Faubus from entering their high school. The students' attendance at the high school was a test of the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the nine students' entry on the first day of classes at Central High. The incident made headlines, and later that month, President Dwight D Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the nine Black students into the school, effectively dubbing them the 'Little Rock Nine'. It drew national attention to the civil rights movement. 

The US Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka case on May 17, 1954, that segregation at America's public schools was unconstitutional. Prior to the court's decision, many states across the country practiced the segregation laws, or Jim Crow laws, which mandated that African-American and White children should attend separate schools. The ruling, however, sparked widespread resistance and prompted the court to issue a second decision in 1955 - Brown II - ordering school districts to integrate "with all deliberate speed". Some schools began to comply with the decision and created a system in which Black students interested in enrolling in White schools would be put through a series of rigorous interviews to determine their capabilities and if they were suited for admission.

Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas (Wikimedia Commons)

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and local newspapers increased pressure upon the school board and it adopted a plan for the gradual integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Although school officials interviewed approximately 80 Black students fro Central High School, only nine were chosen: Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls Lanier, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Melba Patillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown Trickey and Thelma Mothershed Wair. Daisy Lee Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, served as their spokesperson and organizer. Bates, along with fellow Arkansas NAACP members, carefully screened the group of students and ensured that they possessed the strength and resilience to face the resistance they would inevitably encounter.  

In the weeks leading to the start of the new academic year, the nine students had to sit through intensive counseling sessions to prepare for the classes and guide them on what to expect, and how to respond to anticipated hostile situations. On September 2, 1957, Governor Orval Faubus announced that he would deploy the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Black students' entry to Central High School, claiming it was for the other students' protection. In his televised address, Faubus insisted that allowing the Black students to enter the school would possibly result in violence and bloodshed. A pro-segregation group, The Mother's League of Central High School, held a protest against integration on Septemeber 3. That afternoon, however federal judge Ronald Davies issues a ruling saying desegregation would go as planned the next day. 

Little Rock, 1959. Rally at state capitol. Photograph shows a group of people, one holding a Confederate flag, surrounding speakers and National Guard, protesting the admission of the "Little Rock Nine" to Central High School (Wikimedia Commons)

The Little Rock Nine arrived for their first day at Central High Scool on September 4, 1957 with eight being driven by Bates. Eckford, whose family did not have a telephone, could not be informed of the carpool plans and hence arrived alone. As Faubus had said, The Arkansas National Guard was at the scene ready to prevent the Little Rock Nine from walking through the door of Central High. Their arrival was greeted by an angry mob of White students, parents and citizens who were staunch in their views of pro-segregation. They even faced racial slurs and as well as physical threats, causing them to abandon their attempt to attend classes that day. The school soon became the center of a national debate centering on civil rights, discrimination and states' rights.

Judge Ronald Davies intervened on Septemeber 20, 1957, and ordered Faubus to remove the National Guard from the Central High School's entrance and allow integration to take its course. The Little Rock Police Department took over to maintain order. Despite Faubus removing the National Guard, and the police escorting the Little Rock Nine returning to school on September 23, some 1,000 people yet again formed a mob protesting against integration. Police who feared for the nine students' safety amid ensuing riots, evacuated them from the scene. The following day, President Eisenhower dispatched over 1,000 members of the US  Army's 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and federalized 10,000 Arkansas National Guardsmen to see that the school would be open to the nine students.

Time 70 Issue 15. Front cover is a photograph of a young U.S. Army paratrooper in battle gear outside the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, supporting the school's integration (Wikimedia Commons)

On September 25, the Little Rock Nine returned to Central High School and completed their enrolment. Integration was plagued with numerous challenges throughout the year and Faubus repeatedly expressed his wish to have the Little Rock Nine removed from Central High. According to a New York Times report, dated September 25, 1957, the nine African-American students were subject to routine harassment and even violence throughout their first year at the school. Patillo, for instance, had been kicked, beaten, and had acid thrown in her face, while Ray was pushed down a flight of stairs. In another incident, White students burned an African-American effigy in a vacant site across the school, and the Little Rock Nine had been banned from participating in extracurricular activities.

Brown was expelled from Central High School in February 1958 or retaliating against the racist attacks. But the nine students weren't the only one subject to such backlash. Ray's mother was fired from her job with the state of Arkansas when she refused to remove her daughter from school. Units of the United States Army had to remain at the school for the rest of the academic year to guarantee the Black students' safety. In May 1958, Green became the only senior among the Little Rock Nine to graduate from Central High School. In September 1958, one year after the high school was integrated, Faubus had all Little Rock high schools shut down for an entire year, pending a public vote to prevent African-American attendance. The majority of the votes that came in from Little Rock citizens were against integration and the schools remained closed.

New York City Mayor Robert Wagner greeting the teenagers who integrated Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas / World Telegram photo by Walter Albertin. Pictured, front row, left to right: Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Carlotta Walls, Mayor Robert Wagner, Thelma Mothershed, Gloria Ray; back row, left to right: Terrence Roberts, Ernest Green, Melba Pattilo, Jefferson Thomas (Wikimedia Commons)

The eight other students completed their high school studies via correspondence or at other schools across the country. Little Rock's high schools opened in August 1959, and several of the Little Rock Nine went on to pursue illustrious careers. Eckford went on to join the army and later earned her General Education Equivalency diploma. Green served as an assistant secretary of the federal Department of Labor, under President Jimmy Carter. Brown served as deputy assistant secretary workforce diversity in the Department of the Interior under President Bill Clinton's administration. Patillo became a reporter for NBC. Thomas served in the Army during the Vietnam War, earned a business degree, and worked as an accountant for private companies and the Pentagon.

The Little Rock Nine was widely recognized for their crucial role in the civil rights movement and were each awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Clinton in 1999. The Little Rock Nine also received personal invitations to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.

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