The Little Rock Nine
Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas was the home to a key event of the American Civil Rights Movement.Nine black students enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, on September 1957.In 1954 U.S. Supreme Court had ruled, in a landmark decision, that segregation in public schools unconstitutional.The court had mandated that all public schools in the country be integrated "with all deliberate speed".
An earlier legal groundbreaking case, Brown v. Board of Education, was the basis for the Supreme Court decision.In the Brown case, African-American children in Topeka, Kansas were denied access to all white schools due to rules allowing for separate but equal facilities.The idea of separate but equal was allowed based on the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.This doctrine stated that it was permisable for there to exist separate facilities for people of different races but they had to be of equal quality.It was actually based on railroad transportation but the doctrine was then applied to other facilities such as schools.At the time this decision was both backward and progressive.Although separate facilities was a racist policy, the fact that it required equality of service was progressive.(Lofgren 1988)Brown v. Board of Education argued that they had separate facilities but that they were in no way equal.
The Brown decision, made by the Supreme Court, overturned the separate but equal doctrine.The Court ruled that separate facilities based on race were, in fact, unequal.The fourteenth amendment of the constitution guarantees equal protection under the law thereby making the existing doctrine unconstitutional.(Reed 2004)
Three years later, nine students challenged the continued segregation in southern schools.On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High in Little Rock Arkansas, African American students Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Minnijean Brown, Thelma Mothershed, Glory Ray and Melba Pattillo attempted to enter all white Central High.The NAACP had previously registered the students at the school.The state National Guard was called out to bar the entry of the students by Governor Orval Faubus.
It is interesting the Governor Faubus delayed and continued to block admission of black students for an entire month.The Little Rock school board had agreed to comply with ruling of the Supreme court in 1955.By 1957 the State University, some colleges, some public schools, the bus system and some restaurants.Governor Faubus had appointed African Americans to various governmental positions.His own son went to college in Arkansas which was already integrated.(Daniel 2000, 251)
Governor Faubus was a politician who wanted to make sure he was reelected.He knew that his election opponent, Jim Johnson, had run on a racist platform and that it was popular with many voters.(Daniel 2000, 253) This is, no doubt, the reason Faubus chose to speak out against integration and support the segregationist.
Desegregation was slowly making its’ way across the south.States had been allowed to handle the issue locally taking their own good time in putting desegregation into effect.Little Rock is where a nationally significant showdown occurred.On one side was the NAACP and on the other, many of the southern white citizens.
Many southern white citizens were against integration and had been waiting to make a stand against integration since the decision in Brown v Board of Education.They shrouded their objections under the mantle of two citizen organizations, the Mother’s League and the Citizen’s Council.They expressed many fears based on black stereotypes.One fear was that off black and white students socializing resulting in inter-racial dating and sexual relations.(Daniel 2000, 259) These groups disguised their hatred and fear by using religion as a part of their meetings.By praying at the beginning and end it made them appear to be righteous people with good intentions rather than racists who felt superior.In an area with lower incomes, sharing resources equally with minorities was something they were not willing to do.They desired to have their tax dollars going to their local schools for their children and busing black children out to schools with less supplies and poorer overall conditions.(Daniel 2000, 252) A flash point for working class whites was the fact that an upper middle class white school was not being integrated while Central High was.This insinuated a class distinction possible equating poorer whites with African American status as opposed to white status.(Anderson 2004, 609)
On the other side was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.They knew that change was coming but it was coming far too slowly.They knew that if they wanted faster progress they would have to force the issue and force the national government to back up the Supreme Court decisions on segregation.Daisy Bates was the president of the NAACP.She had grown up in a small town in Arkansas.Her own mother had been murdered by three white men.
On September 9 the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas executed an injunction against the governor and the National Guard for interfering with integration.President Dwight D. Eisenhower met with Governor Faubus in Newport R.I. to discuss the stand-off and request that the Governor comply.On September 20th Judge Davies granted the lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Wiley Branton of the NAACP an injunction telling Faubus to withdraw the National Guard
Riots broke out on September 23rd.Little Rock police had smuggled students into the school early to avoid protesters.More than one thousand white protesters rioted overwhelming the number of police officers escorting the Little Rock Nine from school.In answer president Eisenhower sent 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to Little Rock to assure the success of the students’ admission to school despite the civil unrest.The 101st remained stationed in Little Rock for over two months.Even after the 101st were gone the Federalized National Guard remained until May 8th as a precaution.(Anderson 2004)
During the 1958-59 Little Rock citizens voted to shut down the city's four high schools for the academic year ahead rather than to accept racial integration of all the system's schools.The vote was 19,470 to 7,561 in favor of closing public high schools.Several thousand students had to find an alternative for their education that year.It became known as the "Lost Year."Adolphine Fletcher Terry formed the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC).Not all white citizens supported Faubus.When Terry learned that Governor Orval Faubus had used troops to prevent black students from attending Central High School during the Little Rock desegregation crisis and that a white mob had terrorized the students, she wrote: “For days, I walked about unable to concentrate on anything, except the fact that we had been disgraced by a group of poor whites and a portion of the lunatic fringe….Where had the better class been while this was being concocted?Shame on us.”(Anderson 2004, 608) In June of 1959 a federal court rules Faubus' actions unconstitutional, forcing him to reopen the schools.
Carlotta Walls was one of those students to enroll at Central High School.She describes her journey in her book A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School .Carlotta says that students in her all African American middle school were told by the teacher that the all-white Central High School was being integrated and they were invited to sign up.She was interested in attending a school which gave her a better chance at college and was also much closer to her home.(Lanier 2010, 45)
Of some 150 African-American students who could have attended Central, only 114 signed up.Central chose just thirty-nine of those just nine actually showed up on the first day of school.Walls describes her time at the school as painful.She says the African American students were the tormented daily, “(they) spat on us, kicked on us, pushed us into lockers and down stairs.”(Lanier 2010, 122) Others students sympathized with the black students.Carlotta describes the kindness of a few students who chatted with her or wrote nice comments in her yearbook.(Lanier 2010, 122)
It wasn’t just Carlotta who suffered.Her family was persecuted as well.She noticed that her father was repeatedly laid off from jobs once the employers realized that his daughter was one of the nine students attempting to integrate the schools system.(Lanier 2010, 124) Other parents of the nine experienced similar unemployment problems.Even the local newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette, which had presented a more balanced coverage of the events than its’ rival the Arkansas Democrat, was subjected to a boycott of its’ advertisers in an effort to shut it down.(Lanier 2010, 125)
Carlotta’s tormentors did not stop when school resumed after the lost year.Just before graduation she experience what she calls “the most horrific night of my life.”“For weeks things had been calm, and graduation was just four weeks away,” she said.She went to sleep only to awaken when her home was bombed.The fact that her home had been bombed wasn’t the worst part of the story.Since her father wasn’t home at the time, he became a suspect.Worse yet a sixteen year old family friend was accused and spent two years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.(Lanier 2010, xiii)
In May of 1960, Walls became the first African American girl to graduate during commencement at Little Rock High School and in 1999 the Little Rock Nine received Congressional Gold Medal.In 2009 Youngest of the Little Rock Nine Carlotta received the Thurgood Marshall Award.(Lanier 2010, viii)
Sculptures of the Little Rock Nine can be seen on the grounds of the Arkansas state Capitol today as recognition of their bravery in the Civil Rights Movement.
Anderson, Karen."The Little Rock School Desegregation Crisis: Moderation and Social Conflict."The Journal of Southern History, 2004: 603-604.
Daniel, Pete.Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s.United States: Smithsoion Institution, 2000.
Lanier, Carlotta Walls.A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.New York: Ballentine Books, 2010.
Lofgren, Charles A. "The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation."The Journal of Southern History, 1988: 512.
Reed, Linda."The Brown Decision: Its Long Anticipation and Lasting Influence."The Journal of Southern History, 2004: 337-338.