September 25, 1957 – Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, is Integrated using U.S. Army Troops.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in educational institutions was unconstitutional. Five days later, the Little Rock School Board issued a statement saying it would comply with the decision as soon as SCOTUS gave them a way and a time frame in which desegregation should be implemented.
For that era, Arkansas was among the more progressive Southern states regarding issues of race. The Little Rock Public Library allowed African-Americans in 1951. In 1955, the Little Rock School Board unanimously adopted a plan for integration to begin in 1957 at the high school level. But, The National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit, arguing the change was too gradual, but a federal judge dismissed the suit, saying that the school board was acting in good faith. In 1957, Little Rock’s bus system was desegregated and seven out of Arkansas’ eight state universities were integrated.
In Spring 1957, there were 517 black students who lived in the Central High School district. Eighty said that they wanted to attend Central High in September. They were interviewed by the Little Rock School Board, which accepted 17. Eight of those students later decided to remain at all-black Horace Mann High School, leaving the “Little Rock Nine” to be the first black students at Little Rock’s best high school.
In August 1957, the newly formed Mother’s League Of Central High School won a temporary injunction to block integration of the school from the local court, charging that it would lead to violence. The federal district court nullified the injunction on August 30. On September 2, Governor Orval Faubus, a staunch segregationist, called out the Arkansas National Guard to surround Central High School and prevent integration, claiming he wanted to prevent the bloodshed. The next day, the federal court ordered integrated classes to begin on September 4.
That morning, 100 National Guard troops with rifles encircled Central High School. A mob of 500 white citizens gathered. When the black students arrived, the crowd shouting racial slurs and threatened the teenagers. The National Guard troops refused to let the black students into the school. One of the nine, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, was surrounded by the mob, which threatened to lynch her. She was finally taken to safety by a sympathetic white woman.
Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann condemned Faubus’ decision to call out the National Guard, but the governor defended his action stating that integration would come to Little Rock when and if the majority of people chose to support it. Faubus’ defiance of the federal court order was the first major test of the ruling in Brown v. Board Of Education.
On September 20, the federal court ruled that Faubus used the troops to prevent integration, not to preserve law and order. Faubus was forced to withdraw the National Guard troops. The Little Rock Police Department was put in charge of the situation
On September 23, a mob of 1,000 white people gathered outside Central High School. The nine black students managed to enter the school through a side door. The mob became unruly learning that the black students were inside, and the police evacuated them out of fear for their safety.
That evening, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a call for opponents of the federal court order to cease and desist. On September 24, Little Rock’s mayor sent a telegram to Eisenhower requesting troops to maintain order and complete the integration process. The president federalized the Arkansas National Guard and deployed U.S. troops to Little Rock. That evening, from the White House, Eisenhower delivered a nationally televised address explaining that he had taken the action to defend the rule of law and prevent mob rule.
On September 25, the Little Rock Nine entered the school under heavily armed guard. Troops remained at Central High School for the entire school year. Yet, the black students had to endure verbal and physical assaults from some of the white students. One of the nine, Melba Patillo, had acid thrown in her eyes. Elizabeth Eckford was pushed down a flight of stairs. The three male students were often beaten up. Minnijean Brown dumped a bowl of chili over the head of a white student who taunted her and she was suspended. Later, Brown was suspended for the rest of the year after continuing to push back.
In May 1958, Ernest Green, the only senior in the group, became the first African-American to graduate from Central High School.
In September 1958, Faubus ordered Little Rock’s three high schools closed rather than permit integration. Most Little Rock students lost a year of school while the legal fight over desegregation continued. In 1959, a federal court struck down Faubus’ school-closing law, and in September 1959, all of Little Rock’s high schools opened with black students in attendance. But, it wasn’t until 1972 that all public schools in Little Rock were finally fully integrated.
The Little Rock Nine went on to great accomplishments. Green was Assistant Secretary of Labor in President Jimmy Carter’s administration. Pattillo became a reporter for NBC News and wrote Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School. Brown was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Interiors’ Workforce Diversity in the Clinton Administration. Eckford served in the U.S. Army. Gloria Ray Karlmark, the granddaughter of a slave, graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. She immigrated to Sweden and was head of IBM’s Nordic Laboratory. Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, entering Central High School at 14-years-old, wrote A Mighty Long Way: My Journey To Justice At Little Rock Central High School. Terrence Roberts was Assistant Dean of the UCLA School of Social Welfare. He wrote Simple, Not Easy: Reflections On Community, Social Responsibility And Tolerance. Jefferson Thomas worked for the Department of Defense for 27 years. He passed away in 2010. Thelma Mothershed Wair was a high school teacher for 30 years.
In 1999, President William Jefferson Clinton awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Little Rock Nine. A decade later, President Barack Obama invited them as special guests to his inauguration.