On Sept. 4, 1957, the Arkansas National Guard, under the order of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, blocked nine black students from entering Little Rock Central High School.
The Little Rock Crisis
The Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The court then heard additional arguments about implementing desegregation, and ordered in 1955 that schools be integrated “with all deliberate speed.”
The Little Rock School District, under the leadership of superintendent Virgil Blossom, planned a gradual desegregation that would begin at Central High School in September 1957. Nine teenagers volunteered to be the first black students attend the all-white school: Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Minniejean Brown, Gloria Ray, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Pattillo.
But many whites in the city were bitterly opposed to integration, including Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who called in Arkansas National Guard troops on Sept. 2. The nine students, known as the “Little Rock Nine,” were advised by school board officials to skip the first day of school the following day.
Civil Rights Movement OTDs
- 1954: Brown v. Board of Education
- 1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott and Browder v. Gayle
- 1957: The Little Rock Nine
- 1963: March on Washington and MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
- 1964: Murder of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman
- 1965: “Bloody Sunday” in Selma
- 1968: Martin Luther King Assassinated
District Judge Ronald Davies ordered the school board to proceed with desegregation the next day, but Faubus ignored the federal order. When the students arrived at Central high on the morning of Sept. 4, they were met by a mob of angry whites and turned away by guardsmen.
Eight of the students arrived together, but 15-year-old Eckford arrived alone on the other side of the campus. She was soon surrounded by the jeering mob. She later recounted, “I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob—someone who maybe would 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.”
Pictures of the young girl being abused by whites became a symbol of the widespread, and often violent, resistance to desegregation efforts in the U.S.
Eisenhower Federalizes Guard and Orders in Army
Sources in this Story
- Little Rock Central High 40th Anniversary: History of Little Rock Public Schools Desegregation
- Encyclopedia of Arkansas: Desegregation of Central High School
- Encyclopedia of Arkansas: Little Rock Nine
- PBS: Let Freedom Ring: Central High
- Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement: The Little Rock Nine (September)
- National Parks Service: Little Rock Central High School: Crisis Timeline
- The New York Times: The Little Rock Nine: 50 Years Later
- Time: The Legacy of Little Rock
Judge Davies ordered Faubus to withdraw the guardsmen and U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. filed an injunction against Faubus and the National Guard. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also demanded that Faubus back down.
On Sept. 20, Faubus withdrew the troops and the students were allowed to enter the school on Sept. 23. But white protesters overpowered police and attacked black reporters. The students had to be taken out of school for their safety.
Pattillo later wrote about her experience that day: “The first day I was able to enter Central High School, what I felt inside was terrible, wrenching, awful fear. On the car radio I could hear that there was a mob. I knew that the sounds that came from the crowd were very angry. So we entered the side of the building, very, very fast. Even as we entered there were people running after us, people tripping other people.”
The next day, Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10730, which federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered the Army’s 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock.
With federal protection, the students were finally able to attend school safely on Sept. 25. They remained under federal protection for the rest of the year.
“Inside Central High, day after day, the Little Rock Nine endure cruel hardship and abuse from the white students—beatings, shoving, jeers, insults, and constant humiliation,” says the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. “Their lockers are destroyed and fireballs thrown at them in the restrooms. A lighted stick of dynamite is hurled at Melba Pattillo, she is stabbed, and acid is sprayed in her eyes.”
Despite the abuse, eight of the students would complete the year, including Green, who graduated. Brown was expelled in January after twice responding to hecklers.
Faubus and the segregationists continued fighting against integration. In June 1958, they won a court decision that delayed integration until 1961, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that integration be continued that September. Faubus responded by closing down four Little Rock public schools and allowing them to be used as “private” schools for white children.
No black students would be admitted into white schools during the 1958-9 school year. Anti-segregationists were able to rally enough support to remove three segregationists from the school board through a recall election, and the schools were reopened as public schools in 1959. Five of the Little Rock Nine returned to Central High and went on to graduate.
The Eisenhower Presidential Library provides documents related to Eisenhower’s role in the incident, including press releases, correspondence and situational reports.
Interviews: Little Rock Nine and Faubus
The National Parks Service provides short biographies of the nine students.
The Little Rock Nine
On the 50th anniversary of the event, seven of the nine black students described their ordeal and its aftermath to The New York Times. Carlotta Walls LaNier spoke about getting respect from her white classmates: “I just never really found anyone, not that I was looking for it, but I didn’t find anyone to stand up and defend any of us, because of what might happen to them or their family. I think they respected me, even those hoodlums, thugs that harassed me, had some sense of respect, because they couldn’t get to me.”
Gov. Faubus discussed the Little Rock incident in a Sept. 15, 1957, interview with Mike Wallace and reflected on it in 1974 with the Southern Oral History Program.
Analysis: Legacy of Little Rock
Decades after the Little Rock incident, segregation and inequality in the American school system live on. In 2007, Time magazine wrote, “American schools are still nearly as segregated as they were 50 years ago. Almost three-quarters of African-American students are currently in schools that are more than 50% black and Latino, while the average white student goes to a school that is 80% white, according to a 2001 study by the National Center for Education Statistics. Similarly, a 2003 study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard found that 27 of the nation’s largest urban school districts are ‘overwhelmingly’ black and Latino, and segregated.”
The Civil Rights Movement
The findingDulcinea Web Guide to the Civil Rights Movement features links to the best primary and secondary sources on the movement.
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