Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. It was one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement and helped establish the precedent that “separate but equal” education was not equal in all forms.
Three years after the supreme court ruling, nine black students from Arkansas enrolled at a formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock. These nine fought for their equal rights to education which was already supported by the law. However, it took them up to the White House before they finally stepped into the school and had their first class.
This is the fascinating story of Arkansas’ Little Rock Nine.
Separate was Never Equal
Until the court’s decision, many states across the nation had mandatory segregation laws, or Jim Crow laws, requiring African-American and white children to attend separate schools. Resistance to the supreme court's ruling on school integration was so widespread that the court issued a second decision in 1955, known as Brown II, ordering school districts to integrate “with all deliberate speed.”
Despite such a court order to hasten the desegregation in all American public schools, many states didn't abide quickly. Therefore, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attempted to register black students in previously all-white schools in cities throughout the South.
Little Rock Central High
One of the schools that were part of the desegregation was the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
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 would be implemented during the fall of the 1957 school year, which would begin in September 1957.
By 1957, Arkansas NAACP President Daisy Gaston Bates registered nine black students to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High. They were selected because of their excellent grades, character, and attendance.
These nine African-Americans students were later known as the Little Rock Nine:
- Ernest Green
- Elizabeth Eckford
- Jefferson Thomas
- Terrence Roberts
- Carlotta Walls LaNier
- Minnijean Brown
- Gloria Ray Karlmark
- Thelma Mothershed
- Melba Pattillo Beals
The Arkansas NAACP carefully vetted the nine students. The organization believes that apart from excellent grades, these students possessed the strength and determination to face any resistance they would encounter from the anti-desegregation group.
In the weeks before the start of the new school year, the students participated in intensive counseling sessions, guiding them on what to expect once classes began and how to respond to anticipated hostile situations. Especially that Arkansas is one of the many states then that were not embracing the supreme court's decision of school desegregation.
During the time, NAACP was opposed by two pro-segregation groups: The Capital Citizens Council and the Mother's League of Central High School. But what worst was, Arkansas Governor Orval Eugene Faubus was also anti-desegregation.
Little Rock Crisis
Warned by the Little Rock board of education not to attend the first day of school, the nine African American students arrived at Central High on September 4, 1957. Eight came together, driven by Bates.
They encountered a large white mob in front of the school, who began shouting, throwing stones, and threatening to kill the students. In addition, about 270 soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard, sent by
Arkansas Gov. Orval Eugene Faubus blocked the school's entrance.
One of the nine students, Elizabeth Eckford, arrived alone. As her family didn't own a telephone, so wasn't able to join the carpooling. Alone with a notebook in her hand, stoically approaching the school as a crowd of hostile and screaming white students and adults surround her.
Eckford later recalled that one of the women "spat" on her. Her image was printed and broadcasted widely in the United States and abroad, bringing the Little Rock controversy to be national and international attention.
"They moved closer and closer. ... Somebody started yelling. ... I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me." -- Elizabeth Eckford
Eisenhower vs. Faubus
On September 9, the Little Rock School District issued a statement condemning the governor's deployment of soldiers to the school and called for a citywide prayer service.
The confrontation in Little Rock drew attention to racism and civil rights in the United States. The tension between federal and state power also escalated, which led to a power showdown between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and former Governor Faubus.
Eisenhower sent a telegram to Faubus in which he wrote:
"The only assurance I can give you is that the Federal Constitution will be upheld by me by every legal means at my command."
The U.S. President then enforced that the Department of Justice was collecting facts about why Faubus failed to comply with the courts. This led to the September 14 conference where Faubus and Eisenhower discussed the Court order in Newport, Rhode Island.
Eventually, Faubus backed down and stated his desire to comply with his duty to the constitution. The Governor did express his hope that the Department of Justice would be patient.
President Eisenhower released a statement announcing that the Governor withdrew his troops. The Little Rock School Board was carrying out desegregation plans, and the local law was ready to keep order.
Paratroopers Escorted Little Rock Nine to School
Based on the agreement between Eisenhower and Faubus, things should go according to plan. However, on September 23, Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann sent a telegram to Eisenhower reporting a mob at Central High School in Little Rock.
State Police made efforts to control the angry mob. However, for the safety of the nine African-American students, they were sent home. The Mayor stressed how this demonstration was a planned act. The principal agitator, Jimmy Karam, was an associate of Governor Faubus. Therefore, there was no way the Governor was not aware.
Deployment of 101 Airborne in Little Rock
By October 1957, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard, extracting the entire 10,000-member, and ordered them to return to their armories which effectively removed them from Faubus' control.
Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Arkansas to protect the nine black students and enforce the Federal court order.
Finally, with the protection of the paratroopers, the nine African-American students were able to attend their classes in Little Rock Central High.
Even though the nine African-American students managed to attend school in the protection of the 101st Airborne Division, it was still inevitable at the time to experience bullying from their classmates.
One of the students, Minnijean Brown, fought back and was expelled. The remaining eight students, however, attended the school for the rest of the academic year.
On May 25, 1958, Ernest Green, the only senior among the Little Rock Nine, became the first African American graduate of Central High. Even Martin Luther King Jr. attended graduation to witness the first African-American graduate in a formerly all-white school.
The Lost Year, 1958-1959
In the same year that Green graduated from Little Rock Central High, Governor Faubus got re-elected.
He then decided to petition the Federal District Court's decision to postpone the desegregation of public high schools in Little Rock.
Faubus argued that if the schools remained integrated, there would be an increase in violence. Later, Faubus called together an Extraordinary Session of the State Legislature on August 26 to enact his segregation bills. He was claiming that Little Rock had to assert its rights and freedom against the federal decision.
By September 1958, Faubus signed acts that enabled him and the Little Rock School District to close all public schools. The closure led to preventing black and white students from attending school from 1958 to 1959; it was known in Arkansas' history as the "Lost Year."
This undertaking triggered more loathe against black Americans, as the conservatives blamed them for the school closure.
Many school districts in the South followed Little Rock's example, closing schools or implementing "school-choice" programs that subsidized white students' attendance at private segregated academies.
Little Rock Central High School did not reopen with a desegregated student body until 1960. Efforts to integrate schools and other public areas throughout the country continued through the 1960s.
Little Rock Nine After the Crisis
Bates was right in choosing the nine students to fight for the right of every black American student in the country, as most of them had distinguished careers after the crises.
Green served as assistant secretary of the federal Department of Labor under President Jimmy Carter. Brown worked as deputy assistant secretary for workforce diversity in the Department of the Interior under President Bill Clinton. Patillo-Beals worked as a reporter for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
Thomas served in the Army in Vietnam, earned a business degree, and worked as an accountant for private companies and the Pentagon. Eckford also served in the Army and became a journalist and history teacher. In 2018, she published her autobiography, The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Little Rock Central High.
The Little Rock Nine has been widely recognized for their heroism and significant role in the civil rights movement. In 1999, President Clinton awarded each member of the group the Congressional Gold Medal. They were also invited to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.
Today, Little Rock Central High School still functions as part of the Little Rock School District. It 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.