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The Little Rock Nine was a group of African-American students who were enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The ensuing Little Rock Crisis, in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, and then attended after the intervention of President Eisenhower, is considered to be one of the most important events in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. On their first day of school, guards at the school would not let them in and they were followed by mobs making threats to lynch.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483, on May 17, 1954. The decision declared all laws establishing segregated schools to be unconstitutional, and it called for the desegregation of all schools throughout the nation.
After the decision the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attempted to register black students in previously all-white schools in cities throughout the South. In Little Rock, the capital city of Arkansas, the Little Rock School Board agreed to comply with the high court's ruling. Virgil Blossom, the Superintendent of Schools, submitted a plan of gradual integration to the school board on May 24, 1955, which the board unanimously approved. The plan would be implemented during the fall of the 1957 school year, which would begin in September 1957. By 1957, the NAACP had registered nine black students to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High, selected on the criteria of excellent grades and attendance. The nicknamed "Little Rock Nine" consisted of Ernest Green (b. 1941), Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), Jefferson Thomas (b. 1942), Terrence Roberts (b. 1941), Carlotta Walls LaNier (b. 1942), Minnijean Brown (b. 1941), Gloria Ray Karlmark (b. 1942), Thelma Mothershed (b. 1940), and Melba Beals (b. 1941). Ernest Green was the first African American to graduate from Central High School.
Several segregationist councils threatened to hold protests at Central High and physically block the black students from entering the school. Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to support the segregationists on September 4, 1957. The sight of a line of soldiers blocking nine black students from attending high school made national headlines and polarized the city. Regarding the accompanying crowd, one of the nine black students, Elizabeth Eckford, recalled "they moved closer and closer ... Somebody started yelling ... I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd â someone who maybe could 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." On September 9, "The Council of Church Women" issued a statement condemning the governor's deployment of soldiers to the high school and called for a citywide prayer service on September 12. Even President Dwight Eisenhower attempted to de-escalate the situation and summoned Governor Faubus to meet him. The President warned the governor not to interfere with the Supreme Court's ruling.
The next day, Woodrow Mann, the Mayor of Little Rock, asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce integration and protect the nine students. On September 24, the President ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to Little Rock and federalized the entire 10,000 member Arkansas National Guard, taking it out of the hands of Governor Faubus. The 101st took positions immediately, and the nine students successfully entered the school on the next day, Wednesday, September 25, 1957.
By the end of September 1957, the nine were admitted to Little Rock Central High under the protection of the U.S. Army (and later the Arkansas National Guard), but they were still subjected to a year of physical and verbal abuse (being spat on and called names) by many of the white students. Melba Pattillo had acid thrown into her eyes. Another one of the students, Minnijean Brown, was verbally confronted and abused. She said "I was one of the kids 'approved' by the school officials. We were told we would have to take a lot and were warned not to fight back if anything happened. One girl ran up to me and said, 'I'm so glad youâre here. Wonât you go to lunch with me today?' I never saw her again." Minnijean Brown was also taunted by members of a group of white, male students in December 1957 in the school cafeteria during lunch. She dropped her lunch â a bowl of chili â onto the boys and was suspended for six days. Two months later, after more confrontation, Brown was suspended for the rest of the school year. She transferred to New Lincoln High School in New York City. As depicted in the 1982 made-for-TV docudrama Crisis at Central High, white students were only punished when their offense was "both egregious and witnessed by an adult".
Governor Faubus' opposition to desegregation may have been politically and racially motivated. Faubus had indicated that he would consider bringing Arkansas into compliance with the high court's decision in 1956. However, desegregation was opposed by his own southern conservative Democratic Party, which dominated all Southern politics at the time. Faubus risked losing political support in the upcoming 1958 Democratic gubernatorial primary if he showed support for integration.
Most histories of the crisis conclude that Faubus, facing pressure as he campaigned for a third term, decided to appease racist elements in the state by calling out the National Guard to prevent the black students from entering Central High.
Harry Ashmore, the editor of the Arkansas Gazette, won a 1958 Pulitzer Prize for his editorials on the crisis. Ashmore portrayed the fight over Central High as a crisis manufactured by Faubus; in his interpretation, Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to keep black children out of Central High School because he was frustrated by the success his political opponents were having in using segregationist rhetoric to stir white voters.
Congressman Brooks Hays, who tried to mediate between the federal government and Faubus, was later defeated by a last minute write-in candidate, Dale Alford, a member of the Little Rock School Board who had the backing of Faubus's allies. A few years later, despite the incident with the "Little Rock Nine", Faubus ran as a moderate segregationist against Dale Alford, who was challenging Faubus for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1962.
Governer Orval Faubus shut down Central High School for the 1958-1959 school year to resist integration. The school did not reopen until the fall of 1960, and two of the Little Rock Nine - Carlotta Walls and Jefferson Thomas - were the only two black students admitted. They would graduate in 1961.
Little Rock Central High School still functions as part of the Little Rock School District, and is now a National Historic Site that houses a Civil Rights Museum, administered in partnership with the National Park Service, to commemorate the events of 1957.
In 1996, seven of the Little Rock Nine appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. They came face to face with a few of the white students who had tormented them as well as one student who had befriended them.
In 2007, the United States Mint made available a commemorative silver dollar to "recognize and pay tribute to the strength, the determination and the courage displayed by African-American high school students in the fall of 1957." The obverse depicts students accompanied by a soldier, with nine stars symbolizing the Little Rock Nine. The reverse depicts an image of Little Rock Central High School, circa 1957. Proceeds from the coin sales are to be used to improve the National Historic Site. On December 9, 2008 the Little Rock Nine were invited to attend the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected President.
On February 9, 2010, Marquette University honored the group by presenting them with the PΓ¨re Marquette Discovery Award, the university's highest honor, one that had only been given to Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Karl Rahner, and the Apollo 11 astronauts.
Lanier, Carlotta, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, Random House, 2009 Roberts, Terrence, Lessons From Little Rock, The Butler Center, 2009
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