- In the 1950s, segregation was still a common practice in many schools and public places.
- One of the most famous examples is Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, where President Eisenhower sent soldiers with federalized National Guardsmen to protect nine African American students from mobs.
In 1957, nine African American students decided to enroll at Little Rock high school after it had been desegregated. This happened following the trial Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
The Governor of Arkansas ordered them not to enter the school and violence broke out when President Eisenhower sent soldiers with federalized National Guardsmen to protect them from mobs. This incident became known as “The Little Rock Nine Crisis.”
Segregation is when people are separated based on race, religion, or ethnicity. This had happened in the US at least since 1700.
In the 1800s and 1900s, discrimination against minority populations became more common due to racism.
Segregation in the US was also common outside of schools. Most public places and facilities were segregated, like libraries, theaters, and restaurants. Transportation services were also segregated like buses and trains.
Many people had different opinions about segregation. Some quietly changed their attitudes and values, and some expressed their outrage openly. A few people thought that violence was the answer.
The Separate But Equal Doctrine
The Separate But Equal Doctrine was one of the most common justifications for segregation, which is a practice that separates people based on their race.
This phrase means “we are the same but different.” It came from a Supreme Court case that said as long as there are “separate but equal” facilities for each race, segregation is fine.
The Jim Crow Laws
The Jim Crow laws said that African American people couldn’t go to the same places as white people. They couldn’t ride the same buses nor use the same schools. That was the law for a long time.
But then, in 1954, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) started to challenge segregation laws in states such as South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware.
Then a man called Oliver Brown came along and changed things in 1951.
Brown v. Board of Education
In 1951, a man named Oliver Brown filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. He wanted his daughter Linda Brown to be able to go into any school without being turned away because she was African American.
At that time, schools for only white people existed and some schools for only African American people existed. He argued that these schools were not equal to the white ones.
He said he wanted Linda Brown to go into any school she wanted without being turned away because she was African American.
The case was known as Brown v. Board of Education. It decided that it is not okay to separate children in the school based on their race.
One of the big things Brown v. Board did, was to show people that “separate but equal” is not true at all.
How to integrate schools?
The Supreme Court said that schools would need to be integrated. They did not say how exactly. This was a problem. They also asked that districts should move quickly to integrate.
The Court’s decision to let schools stay segregated made it easier for these schools and local officials in the South to not obey the verdict. Some states acted according to that decision, but many didn’t. Arkansas was one of these.
Little Rock, Arkansas
In 1957, some people were for segregation and others were against it. Many were watching TV to find out what would happen in Arkansas where people with different opinions lived. The story was filmed so everyone could see what was happening.
Seventeen African American students from over 200 applicants were admitted for enrollment at Central High. Central High was only one of three high schools in the city that admitted only white kids.
As fall neared, some people in Little Rock and other places were against integration. A lot of African American students withdrew their applications because they did not want to go to a school with white people. By the time school started, only nine black students showed up.
“Little Rock Nine”
Nine students decided to go to Central High School even though many people were not happy about it. They were:
- Minnijean Brown
- Gloria Ray
- Ernest Green
- Melba Patillo
- Jefferson Thomas
- Elizabeth Eckford
- Thelma Mothershed
- Terrence Roberts
- Carlotta Walls
Daisy Gaston Bates had been recruiting them. She was the president of the Arkansas NAACP and co-publisher of the African American newspaper for Arkansas: The State Press.
Daisy carefully chose students for their strong determination and courage. They did counseling sessions to teach them how to act if they faced resistance.
The group soon became famous as the Little Rock Nine.
On September 2nd, 1957, Governor Orval Faubus said he would call in the Arkansas National Guard to keep African American kids from going to Central High. He said it was for their protection. If they went there, there might be violence and bloodshed.
The Mother’s League
The Mothers League held a protest against integration at the school on September 3rd. But that day, a federal judge ruled that desegregation would continue as planned the next day.
The Little Rock Nine came to school on September 4th, 1957. Eight of them arrived together in a car.
Elizabeth Eckford’s family didn’t have a phone, and the driver couldn’t find her. The Arkansas National Guard made sure that all nine of them were not able to enter Central High School.
One of the most important moments was when Eckford showed up alone with her notebook in hand and a crowd around her.
When she got to the high school, she saw a crowd of people. They were screaming and threatening her. Soldiers with bayonets stopped her from going inside the school.
She was scared because the angry mob kept spitting at her and yelling mean things. She quickly headed for a bus stop to find someplace safe to go.
The image was printed and broadcast widely in the United States and all over. This brought the Little Rock controversy to national attention.
In the following weeks, a judge named Ronald Davies ordered the National Guard to be taken away. Then, President Eisenhower tried to convince Governor Faubus to remove the National Guard.
This decision surprised the citizens. Eisenhower was against integration. He grew up in a segregated society and had served in the army for more than 30 years.
The president succeeded and on September 20th Judge Davies ordered for the guard to be removed. The Little Rock Police Department escorted nine African American students into the school on September 23rd while angry protesters were outside of it.
In response, there was a riot with police removing nine African American students from school amid more rioting.
The day after, President Eisenhower sent in 1,200 members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky to help the National Guardsmen to protect the Little Rock Nine and keep them safe while they went to school on September 25th.
There were many legal challenges to integrating schools. Governor Faubus said he wanted the Little Rock Nine removed from Central High.
The school year
They had some good experiences, but they also experienced harassment and violence throughout the year.
Melba Patillo was treated badly. She was beaten and had acid thrown in her face.
Some white students burned an African American effigy across from the school one day, too.
Gloria Ray was pushed down a flight of stairs.
The Little Rock Nine were not allowed to do activities outside of school with other kids at their school.
Minnijean Brown was expelled from Central High School in 1958 for retaliating against the attacks.
The harassment went beyond the students: Gloria Ray’s mother was fired from her job with the State of Arkansas when she refused to remove her daughter from the school.
The 101st Airborne and the National Guard remained at Central High School for the duration of time that year.
On May 25, 1958, the first African American graduate of Central High School became Ernest Green. He was the only senior among the Little Rock Nine.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a leader of civil rights. He showed up at the Central High School graduation to see Ernest Green get his diploma.
Green later became an assistant secretary of the federal Department of Labor under President Jimmy Carter.
The closing of the schools
Governor Faubus closed all the high schools in Little Rock one year after Central High was integrated. This happened because people voted against integration and there were 19,470 votes for it and 7,561 votes against it.
No one knows how many students, who couldn’t find another school after the closure of their old one, just stopped going to school and never went back. Newspaper accounts at the time said that a lot of families left Little Rock in search of schools.
The other kids from the Little Rock Nine did not complete their high school careers in Little Rock. They could do it by correspondence or at other schools across the country.
Eckford joined the Army and later earned her General Education Equivalency diploma.
The high schools reopened in August 1959.
Some of the Little Rock Nine became important people. One person was Brown. He worked for President Bill Clinton and helped him with his work. Patillo also worked for NBC.
Jefferson Thomas served in Vietnam and earned a business degree. He then worked as an accountant for private companies and the Pentagon. He was the first of the Little Rock Nine to die of pancreatic cancer on September 5th, 2010.
The group has been recognized for its important work in the civil rights movement. They were given a gold medal by President Clinton. All of the members got an invitation to see President Obama being inaugurated.