The Little Rock Nine were a group of African-American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The ensuing Little Rock Crisis, in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by ArkansasGovernor Orval Faubus, and then attended after the intervention of PresidentEisenhower, is considered to be one of the most important events in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued its historicBrown v. Board of Education of Topeka,Kansas, 347 U.S. 483, on May 17, 1954. The decision declared all laws establishingsegregated schools to be unconstitutional, and it called for the desegregation of all schools throughout the nation. After the decision 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. In Little Rock, the capital city of Arkansas, the Little Rock 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, the NAACP had registered nine black students to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High, selected on the criteria of excellent grades and attendance. The nicknamed “Little Rock Nine” consisted of Ernest Green (b. 1941), Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), Jefferson Thomas (1942–2010), Terrence Roberts (b. 1941), Carlotta Walls LaNier (b. 1942), Minnijean Brown (b. 1941), Gloria Ray Karlmark (b. 1942), Thelma Mothershed (b. 1940), and Melba Pattillo Beals (b. 1941). Ernest Green was the first African American to graduate from Central High School.
National Guard blockade
Several segregationist 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 on September 4, 1957. The sight of a line of soldiers blocking nine black students from attending high school made national headlines and polarized the nation. Regarding the accompanying crowd, one of the nine black students, Elizabeth Eckford, recalled
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.
On September 9, Little Rock School District issued a statement condemning the governor’s deployment of soldiers to the high school and called for a citywide prayer service on September 12. Even President Dwight Eisenhower attempted to de-escalate the situation and summoned Faubus to meet him. The President warned the governor not to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Woodrow Nilson Mann, the Mayor of Little Rock, 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 federalized the entire 10,000 member Arkansas National Guard, taking it out of the hands of Faubus.
A Tense Year
By the end of September 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 abuse (being spat on and called names) by many of the white students. Melba Pattillo had acid thrown into her eyes and also recalled in her book, Warriors Don’t Cry, an incident in which a group of white girls trapped her in a stall in the girls’ washroom and attempted to burn her alive by dropping pieces of flaming paper on her from above. Another one of the students, Minnijean Brown, was verbally confronted and abused. She said
I was one of the kids ‘approved’ by the school officials. We were told we would have to take a lot and were warned not to fight back if anything happened. One girl ran up to me and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re here. Won’t you go to lunch with me today?’ I never saw her again.
Minnijean Brown was also taunted by members of a group of white male students in December 1957 in the school cafeteria during lunch. She dropped her lunch—a bowl of chili—onto the boys and was suspended for six days. Two months later, after more confrontation, Brown was suspended for the rest of the school year. She transferred to New Lincoln High School in New York City. As depicted in the 1982 made-for-TV docudrama Crisis at Central High, and as mentioned by Melba Pattillo Beals in Warriors Don’t Cry, white students were punished only when their offense was “both egregious and witnessed by an adult”.
The Lost Year
In the summer of 1958, as the school year was drawing to a close, Faubus decided to petition the decision by the Federal District Court in order to postpone the desegregation of public high schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the Cooper v. Aaron case, the Little Rock School District, under the leadership of Faubus, was fighting for a two and a half year delay on de-segregation, meaning that black students would only be permitted into public high schools in January 1961. Faubus argued that if the schools remained integrated there would be an increase in violence. However, in August 1958, the Federal Courts ruled against the delay for de-segregation, which consequently incited Faubus to call together an Extraordinary Session of the State Legislature on August 26 in order to enact his segregation bills.
Claiming that Little Rock had to assert their rights and freedom against the federal decision, in September 1958, Faubus signed acts that enabled him and the Little Rock School District to close all public schools. Thus, with this bill signed, on Monday September 15, Faubus ordered the closure of all four public high schools, preventing both black and white students from attending school. Despite Faubus’s decree, the town’s population had the chance of refuting the bill since the school-closing law necessitated a referendum. The referendum, which would either condone or condemn Faubus’s law, was to take place within thirty days. A week before the referendum, which was scheduled to take place on September 27, Faubus addressed the citizens of Little Rock in an attempt to acquire their votes. Faubus urged the population to vote against integration since he was planning on leasing the public school buildings to private schools, and, in doing so, would educate the white and black students separately. Faubus was successful in his appeal and won the referendum. This year would come to be known as the ‘Lost Year’.
Faubus’s victory would lead to a series of consequences that affected the entire population of Little Rock. Faubus’s intention to open private schools was denied the same day the referendum took place, which caused the citizens of Little Rock to turn on the black community. The black community became a target for hate crimes since people blamed them for the closing of the schools. Daisy Bates, head of the NAACP chapter in Little Rock, was a primary victim to these crimes, in addition to the black students enrolled at Little Rock Central High School and their families.
However, what is seldom noted is the difficult position that the teachers were put in. They were forced to swear loyalty to Faubus’s bills. Although Faubus’s idea of private schools never played out, the teachers were still expected to attend school every day and prepare for the possibility of their students’ return. The teachers were completely under Faubus’s control and the many months that the school stayed empty only served as a cause for uncertainty in their professional futures.
In May 1959, after the firing of forty-four teachers and administrative staff from the four high schools, three segregationist board members were replaced with three moderate ones. The new board members reinstated the forty-four staff members to their positions. The new board of directors then began an attempt to reopen the schools, much to Faubus’s dismay. In order to avoid any further complications, the public high schools were scheduled to open earlier than usual, on August 12, 1959.
Although the Lost Year had come to a close, the black students who would be returning to the high schools were not welcomed by the other students. Rather, the black students had a difficult time getting past mobs to enter the school, and, once inside, they were often subject to physical and emotional abuse. The students were back at school and everything would eventually resume normal function, but the Lost Year would be a pretext for new hatred towards the black students in the public high school.
Faubus’s opposition to desegregation was likely both politically and racially motivated. Although Faubus had indicated that he would consider bringing Arkansas into compliance with the high court’s decision in 1956, desegregation was opposed by his own southern conservative Democratic Party, which dominated all Southern politics at the time. Faubus risked losing political support in the upcoming 1958 Democratic gubernatorial primary if he showed support for integration.
Most histories 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 the crisis. Ashmore portrayed the fight over Central High as a crisis manufactured by Faubus; in his 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 to stir white voters.
A commemorative silver dollar.
Congressman 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’s allies. A few years later, despite the incident with the “Little Rock Nine”, Faubus ran as a moderate segregationist against Dale Alford, who was challenging Faubus for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1962.
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 theNational Park Service, to commemorate the events of 1957.
In 1958, Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén published “Little Rock”, a bilingual composition in English and Spanish denouncing the racial segregation in the United States. In some verses, the writer used names referring the Little Rock events as qualifying adjectives.
Melba Pattillo Beals wrote a memoir titled Warriors Don’t Cry, published in the mid-1990s.
Two made-for-television movies have depicted the events of the crisis: the 1981 CBS movie Crisis at Central High, and the 1993 Disney Channel movie The Ernest Green Story.
In 1996, seven of the Little Rock Nine appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. 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.
President Bill Clinton honored the Little Rock Nine in November 1999 when he presented them each with aCongressional Gold Medal. The medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress. It is given to those who have provided outstanding service to the country. To receive the Congressional Gold Medal, recipients must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of both the House and Senate.
In 2007, the United States Mint made available 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.” The obverse depicts students accompanied by a soldier, with nine stars symbolizing the Little Rock Nine. The reverse depicts an image of Little Rock Central High School, c. 1957. Proceeds from the coin sales are to be used to improve the National Historic Site. On December 9, 2008, the Little Rock Nine were invited to attend the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected President of the United States.
On February 9, 2010, Marquette University honored the group by presenting them with the Père Marquette Discovery Award, the university’s highest honor, one that had previously been given to Mother Teresa,Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Karl Rahner, and the Apollo 11 astronauts, among other notables.