Remembering the Little Rock Nine

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The Little Rock Nine being escorted by the National Guard to Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, 1957. (CSU Archive/Everett Collection/age fotostock)

On September 25, 1957, nine African American students were escorted into Little Rock Central High School by federal troops, marking the school’s ultimate desegregation. The nine students were Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls. (On June 3 that next year, Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from the school.)

The students had been scheduled to attend school on September 3, 1957, but we’re blocked by the mob of white residents, prompting Arkansas governor Orval Faubus to call out state troopers on September 4, 1957, to restore and preserve order, which meant keeping the students out of the school. In the face of this defiance of federal law, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered federal troops to escort the nine students into the school.

That final admission of the students marked the end of the successful effort led by Mrs. Daisy Bates, who was president of the NAACP branches in Arkansas, to desegregate Central High School. The nine students had been selected for the effort because of their grades and personalities. They had also been vetted regarding their residence and character.

Despite all of the planning, it was perhaps not possible to prepare them for the hatred and outbursts and threats of violence that was to come. Ernest Green gave vivid testimony of it at a Jackson State University Black History program in 2005. He indicated that it was not just the mob outside, but many students and staff inside the school.

An earlier attempt to desegregate Little Rock public schools had been attempted in 1956, but it had been delayed through court action. Later that same year, the majority of the southern senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress had issued the Southern Manifesto, a document wherein they vowed to oppose racial integration through whatever means were necessary and for as long as it would take. This was then followed up by many state legislatures, including Mississippi’s, giving boards of trustees and superintendents the authority to close public schools rather than desegregate them. Following that line of resistance, Governor Faubus ordered Arkansas state troopers to forestall the enrolling of the Little Rock Nine.

The Little Rock Nine should always be remembered because they were the first group of African American students to desegregate a public school in any of the southern or former Confederate states that had segregation laws on the books. To many people today, it may be hard to imagine that it took more than three years after the Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1954 for the very first schools to be integrated. Yet, that was the case because die-hard segregationists were dug-in as much as had been the slave-holding Confederates during the Civil War.

The Little Rock Nine should always be remembered because of the threats and the psychological and sometimes physical abuse that they endured for the sake of other members of America’s Black population who were segregated and otherwise oppressed. Others who followed in their footsteps in other schools experienced the same kinds of abuse. Over time, even students in places like Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago got a taste of white hatred as courts ordered their schools desegregated. They were all on the footsteps of the Little Rock Nine.

Contrary to what many would have expected, things didn’t die-down because Central High School was “successfully” desegregated. In rapid succession, there were racial outbreaks in places like Clinton, Tennessee, and Sturgis, Kentucky. As a matter of fact, Little Rock’s public schools were closed the next school year due to “the integration crisis.” Prince Edwards County in Virginia closed all of its public schools rather than desegregate them. In many communities, including Jackson and most of Mississippi, there was soon a mass exodus of white students to newly-created private, segregated schools. With the exodus of so many white children came a withdrawal of financial support for the public schools, which resulted in a decline in the overall conditions of the public schools.

Looking back on September 25, 1957, although things did not suddenly turn out rosy, as a result of the efforts of the Little Rock Nine, the effort did open the door to possibilities that had not even been dreamed of before Brown vs Board of Education. As we remember the Little Rock Nine, let us pledge to willingly share such burdens in the future.

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Remembering the Little Rock Nine

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
September 25, 2023