61 years ago, on September 25th 1957, nine students entered the Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas under a heavily armed US Army guard. They were known as the Little Rock Nine, and the only feature which made them different from the other 1,900 students was the colour of their skin.
It may seem a long time ago, but eight of the nine students are still alive and are now in their late seventies. Maybe your parents or your grandparents are of a similar age, so imagine them talking about their school life in these terms:
“I really think that we were afraid to look at the mob; at least I was. So we just heard it and it was like a sports event, that sound, the roar, but it was a roar of hatred, and just thinking about it makes me shake.” This was Minnijean Brown (known as Trickey), one of the nine during an interview in 2017.
Photo: Little Rock Nine CSU Archive-Everett Collection/age fotostock
Trickey was the only student to fight back against the relentless physical and verbal abuse the students received during the months that followed. She was suspended for pouring a bowl of chilli over a white student's head, and after continuing to fight back when she returned from that suspension, she was excluded again for the rest of the year. The other eight students consistently turned the other cheek. Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the nine at fifteen years of age became the first black female to graduate from the school in 1960.
The Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that segregation was unconstitutional, and while the civil rights movement was gathering broader national support, the Arkansas Governor refused to co-operate. The segregation in schools issue came to a head three years later in September 1957.
The nine attempted to enter the school on the first day of term earlier in the month but were turned away with the school being guarded by local law enforcement to prevent access. After eighteen days of discussions with the president, on 23 September, the group did get into the building with police protection. However, an angry mob of more than a thousand had gathered in front of the school, chanting racist abuse, and assaulting black supporters, so the police drove the students away from the school for their own protection.
Photo: Roger Ebert
That evening, President Eisenhower issued a special "cease and desist" proclamation to opponents of the federal court order. On September 24, Little Rock’s mayor sent a telegram to the president asking for troops to maintain order. Eisenhower federalised the Arkansas National Guard approving the use of troops in Little Rock. That evening, he gave a nationally televised address talking about the prevention of 'mob rule' in Little Rock. On September 25, the Little Rock Nine entered the school under their heavily armed guard.
A year of taunts, acid throwing, beatings and being pushed down the stairs followed, but On May 27, 1958, Ernest Green, the only senior in the original group, became the first black person to graduate from Central High School.
Governor Faubus continued to fight the integration plan, and in 1958 he ordered Little Rock’s high schools to be closed rather than integrate. Many students lost a year of school. In 1959, a federal court ruled against Faubus and in August 1959 Little Rock’s white high schools opened a month early with black students attending. All grades in Little Rock's public schools were eventually finally integrated in 1972.
If you have twenty minutes, this link shows an Oscar winning documentary made in 1964, and is narrated by Jefferson Thomas, one of the nine. It is of its time, and is compelling. As he concludes in the film, he's not sure how many victories Little Rock has delivered, but it's at least nine.
Here are the names of the brave nine so you can read more about them if you want to.
Melba Pattillo Beals
Gloria Ray Karlmark
Carlotta Walls LaNier
Thanks for reading, and remember to check back in from time to time to see what happened, today, but then!