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The Little Rock Nine (37910 hits)

Little Rock Nine

Background and Early Years

The Little Rock Nine was a group of Black students from Little Rock, Ark., who were enrolled in previously Whites-only Little Rock Central High School in 1957 after segregation in educational facilities was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ensuing Little Rock Crisis, in which the nine Black students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, was an important event in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, on May 17, 1954. The Court declared all laws establishing segregated schools were unconstitutional, and called for the immediate desegregation of all schools throughout the nation. Following the decision, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attempted to register Black students in previously all-White schools in cities throughout the South. In Little Rock, the school board agreed to comply with the high court's ruling. Virgil Blossom, the superintendent of schools, submitted a plan of gradual integration to the school board on May 24, 1955, which the board unanimously approved. The plan was to be implemented during the 1958 school year, which would begin in September of 1957. By 1957, the NAACP had already registered nine Black students to attend the previously all-White Little Rock Central High, who they selected based on the criteria of excellent grades and attendance

Refused Entrance

Several segregationist "citizens' councils" threatened to hold protests at Central High and physically block the black students from entering the school. Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to support the segregationists, so that on September 4, 1957, the first day of school, the Little Rock Nine walked to school and were met with crowds of angry and racist residents and students, as well as National Guard officers carrying guns. The line of soldiers blocking nine Black students from attending high school made national headlines and polarized the city. On September 9, The Council of Church Women issued a statement condemning the Governor's deployment of soldiers to the high school and called for a citywide prayer service on September 12. President Dwight D. Eisenhower attempted to mollify the situation, so he summoned Governor Faubus to meet him. The President scolded and warned the governor not to interfere with the Supreme Court's ruling.

Attorneys from the U.S. Justice Department requested an injunction against the Faubus’ deployment of the National Guard from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern district of Arkansas. Judge Ronald Davies granted the injunction and ordered the Governor to withdraw the National Guard on September 20; 16 days after school had already started.

The Governor backed down and withdrew the National Guard, replacing them with the Little Rock Police Department. Hundreds of protesters, mostly parents of the White students that attended Central High, remained entrenched in front of the school. On Monday, September 23, the police quietly slipped the nine students into the school. When the protesters learned that the nine Black students were already inside, they began confronting the line of police officers. When White residents started rioting, the Little Rock Nine were escorted out of the school.

Armed Escort

The following day, Mayor of Little Rock Woodrow Mann asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce integration and protect the nine students. On September 24, the President ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to Little Rock, and he federalized the entire 10,000 member Arkansas National Guard, taking it out of the hands of Faubus. The 101st took positions immediately, and the nine students successfully entered the school, Wednesday, September 25, 1957.

An ad-hoc unit, called the Task Force 153rd Infantry, was hastily organized at Camp Robinson from guards drawn from units statewide. The bulk of the Arkansas National Guard was quickly discharged from federalized status, but Task Force 153rd Infantry remained, taking over the entire operation when the paratroopers left and remained on duty until the end of the school year.

The Tense First Year

By the end of September of 1957, the nine were admitted to Little Rock Central High under the protection of the U.S. Army, and later the Arkansas National Guard, but they were still subjected to a year of physical and verbal abuses, such as spitting on them, calling them names, by many of the White students. One of the students, Minnijean Brown, was verbally confronted by a group of White, male students in December of 1957 in the school cafeteria during lunch. She had dropped her lunch tray, including a bowl of chili, on the ground and was expelled as a result. She later transferred to New Lincoln High School in New York City.

The citizens' council continued to protest and pressure the Little Rock School Board into reversing its decision to desegregate the public schools. In August of 1958, with support from Faubus and the Arkansas State Legislature, the school board canceled the entire 1958-1959 school year for its three high schools rather than integrating them. Thousands of high school students left the city to attend high schools in other school districts, or enrolled in all-White private schools. One year later, additional federal court rulings and the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce pressured the school board into reopening the school system. By the fall of 1959, Little Rock public schools had reopened as an integrated school system. Ernest Green, a senior, became the first Black student to actually graduate from Central High.

Faubus’ Faux Pas

Governor Faubus' opposition to desegregation may have been politically and racially motivated. Faubus had indicated that he would consider bringing Arkansas into compliance with the high court's decision in 1956. However, desegregation was opposed by his own southern conservative Democratic Party, which dominated all Southern politics at the time. Faubus, a conservative, risked losing political support in the upcoming 1958 gubernatorial primary if he showed support for integration.

Most historic accounts of the crisis conclude that Faubus, facing pressure as he campaigned for a third term, decided to appease racist elements in the state by calling out the National Guard to prevent the Black students from entering Central High.

Harry Ashmore, the editor of the Arkansas Gazette, won a 1958 Pulitzer Prize for his editorials on this historic event. Ashmore portrayed the fight over Central High as a crisis manufactured by Faubus. In Ashmore’s interpretation, Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to keep Black children out of Central High School because he was frustrated by the success his political opponents were having in using segregationist rhetoric in stirring White voters.

Congress member Brooks Hays, who tried to mediate between the federal government and Faubus, was later defeated by a last minute write-in candidate, Dale Alford, a member of the Little Rock school board who had the backing of Faubus' allies. A few years later, despite the incident with the "Little Rock Nine," Faubus ran as a moderate segregationist against Dale Alford.

Eisenhower's deployment of federal troops was characterized by some White Southerners as a "second invasion," in reference to the Civil War and Reconstruction. This accusation was repeated in other federal interventions, such as by the U.S. Marshals who escorted James Meredith to University of Mississippi in 1962. As such, segregationists were just as hostile and confrontational with the "invaders" as they were to the Black students.

The Legacy of Little Rock Central

During their ordeal, the Little Rock Nine were advised by people such as local journalists and an activist named Daisy Bates. Bates and the Little Rock Nine received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1958. The Little Rock Nine were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on November 9, 1999. Little Rock Central High School still functions as part of the Little Rock school district, and is now a National Historic Site that houses a Civil Rights Museum, administered in partnership with the National Park Service, to commemorate the events of 1957.

In 1981, the TV movie Crisis at Central High dramatized the events of the crisis, and in 1996, seven of the Little Rock Nine appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. There, they came face to face with a few of the White students who had tormented them as well as one student who had befriended them.

In 2007, the United States Mint made a commemorative silver dollar to "recognize and pay tribute to the strength, the determination and the courage displayed by African-American high school students in the fall of 1957." One side depicts students accompanied by a soldier, with nine stars symbolizing the Little Rock Nine. The reverse side of the coin depicts an image of Little Rock Central High School, circa 1957. Proceeds from the coin sales are used to improve the national historic site at the school.

The Little Rock Nine included:


Sources:; Through a Lens, Darkly," by David Margolick. VAnity Fair, Sept. 24, 2007; "Civil Rights", Kids Discover, Volume 16, Issue 1, January 2006; Beals, Melba Pattillo. Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High; Branton, Wiley A. "Little Rock Revisited: Desegregation to Resegregation." Journal of Negro Education 1983 52(3): 250-269; Elizabeth Jacoway. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation; Kirk, John A, Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940-1970, University of Florida Press, 2002; Roy Reed. Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal, 1997.

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Wednesday, February 6th 2008 at 2:11PM
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