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The Little Rock Nine: Desegregating Central High School in Arkansas

No one planned on Arkansas serving as a major desegregation battleground. The Little Rock School Board issued a statement that it would comply with the Supreme Court decision and adopted an integration plan. The board selected Central High School as the first school to be integrated at the beginning of the 1957–1958 school year.

Careful not to jump hastily into integration’s deepest waters, the Little Rock School Board decided to keep its black high school open, allowing just a handful of students to attend Central High that first year. So much for the best-laid plans.

The Little Rock Nine and resistance from the community

A few black students jumped the gun and tried to enroll in Central High School in January 1956. Because the attempt was made ahead of schedule, a judge denied the students’ enrollment, but that made little difference: White citizens opposed to integration took notice and signs of resistance began to show. Months before the September 3, 1957, initiation date, the Capital Citizen’s Council (Little Rock’s version of the White Citizen’s Council, a segregationist group spawned in Mississippi) and the Central High Mothers’ League launched an anti-integration media campaign.

Given the increased stakes, the school board solicited volunteers to attend Central High School and selected 17 students. Before any school doors opened, however, anti-integrationists went to work and that number dwindled to nine: Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls. Arkansas NAACP head Daisy Bates served as their personal coach and counselor.

On August 29, a suit filed by a member of the Mother’s League prompted the county chancellor to issue a temporary injunction preventing African Americans from enrolling in Central High. Federal District Judge Ronald N. Davies nullified the injunction the next day and ordered the school board to continue with its September 3 plans.

Arkansas Governor Faubus interferes with The Little Rock Nine

On the night of September 2, the Arkansas National Guard and state police surrounded the school on orders from Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to admit only white students, teachers, and school officials. A mob of roughly 300 had gathered by morning.

When the nine black students, called the Little Rock Nine, tried to enroll in Central High the next day, members of the Arkansas National Guard turned them away. Frantic, the school board requested a stay of the integration order on September 7, but Judge Davies rejected the request. On September 10, Governor Faubus received a federal summons; he also held a press conference and announced that the armed presence outside the school would remain. Wisely, the Little Rock Nine didn’t attempt to enroll again before the hearings. On September 20, Faubus, following a court order, removed the troops.

President Eisenhower steps in and The Little Rock Nine enroll

On September 23, the Little Rock Nine made another attempt to enroll in Central High, but uncontrolled violence erupted and they left school before it ended, spurring President Eisenhower to intervene. Although far from a drum major for integration, Eisenhower wouldn’t permit blatant disregard for the laws of the land.

On September 24, President Eisenhower addressed the American public on national television to explain his decision to intervene. He said, “The very basis of our individual rights and freedoms rests upon the certainty that the president and the executive branch of government will support and insure the carrying out of the decisions of the federal courts. . . .” He insisted, “The interest of the nation in the proper fulfillment of the law’s requirements cannot yield to opposition and demonstrations by some few persons. Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.”

Protected by federal troops, the Little Rock Nine enrolled in Central High on September 25, 1957, but they continued to be victimized. White students verbally and physically abused them, and segregationists harassed their families and members of the black community in general. Bowing to the pressure, Minnijean Brown poured a bowl of chili over a white student’s head and was expelled. Ernest Green, the group’s only senior, graduated from Central High on May 27, 1958, but the others didn’t get their chance.

Arkansas Governor Faubus closes schools to prevent integration

In August 1958, Governor Faubus called a special session of the state legislature and passed a law allowing him to close all the public schools. The schools remained closed until September 1959, when federal authority via the courts finally won out. In the interim, two of the Little Rock Nine had moved away with their families, and the others had graduated from other schools in Arkansas. Governor Faubus served as governor of Arkansas for 12 years before losing the post in the 1970 election.

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