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Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Little Rock Nine, September 25, 1957

MP3 File
Today in 1957, nine black high school students entered Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas; they were the first Americans of African descent to do so. The events leading up to their attendance and the events that followed are remembered today as a major turning point in the American civil rights movement.

Public school integration on the national level in the United States began with the Supreme Court's ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954. The Court overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine that had guided public institutions in the United States since the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which had established that city and state governments could segregate their public institutions as long as black citizens were provided equal accommodations. As time would prove, "equal" was a word that could be defined broadly. In many areas, black schools were run-down institutions that received little funding for books, extra-currichular activities and teachers. The Supreme Court's 1954 ruling recognized that the "separate but equal" doctrine had never, and could never, provide equal education for all Americans.

In 1956, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus stated his desire to bring Arkansas schools into compliance with the Brown decision. The next year, the Little Rock school board voted to integrate the city's school system. While the board's vote drew some criticism, it was manageable and reinforced the image of Arkansas as a more progressive state on the issue of civil rights. That image would soon be shattered.

Governor Faubus, a Democrat, faced another election in 1958. He had already met with opposition from the Democratic Party in Arkansas and was concerned with losing his party's support for his re-election bid. Whether or not the Governor had this in mind on September 4, 1957 is unknown, but one thing is clear: he called up the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the first group of black students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, from attending classes at Central High.

Word of the situation in Little Rock quickly reached Washington. President Eisenhower met with Governor Faubus on September 14 and the Governor agreed to send his state's National Guard back to their barracks. On September 23, the black students, once again, tried to enter the school. This time, an angry mob of citizens was on hand and prevented their entry. The Little Rock Police Department said that they could not control the crowd and thus could not guarantee the students' safety. The Little Rock Nine went back home.

President Eisenhower had had enough. The Supreme Court's ruling in 1954 had called for desegregation to take place as quickly as possible. To many in Washington, the Governor of Arkansas was stalling for time, which put the White House in a difficult position. Since Faubus had used his state's National Guard to keep the Little Rock Nine from attending class (an order that was unlawful), the President could not very well call on the same troops to guarantee the students' safety. The nation waited for Eisenhower's next move.

They didn't have to wait very long. President Eisenhower ordered the deployment of part of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock in order to protect the students and allow them to attend class. The units remained in place for the rest of the school year.

Even though the Little Rock Nine were admitted to Central High, they had to endure abuses of all types, including threats to their lives and the lives of their families. The next year, 1958, the Little Rock school board closed the city's public schools so as to avoid integration, an action that lasted for a year.

Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls Lanier, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed-Wair and Melba Pattillo Beals, known to history as the Little Rock Nine, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor on November 9, 1999.

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