Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1957

Little Rock Nine come to school

Three years have passed since racial segregation was ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, and two years since the Court had to pass another ruling to speed up the process of desegregation. Many southern states, dominated by Whites, challenged the Supreme Court ruling and, in open defiance of the law, maintained segregation in schools. Local civil rights activists pressured authorities to comply to the law, but with little success. One morning in 1957, nine black students of Little Rock, Arkansas, walked decisively toward the doors of Rock Central High, an all-White school, sparking the most volatile state-federal conflict since the Civil War. The nine black students were greeted with hostility by a mob who insulted and spit on them. The Governor of Arkansas, Orval E. Faubus, called his own National Guard to try to stop them from enrolling at Central. This attempt to block integration was considered an act of contempt by President Eisenhower, who promptly sent over a thousand federal paratroopers to the site.

Locals bombarded the army trucks with bottles and rocks as the soldiers made their way from the air base to the school. Surrounded by thousands of angry white protesters, the nine frightened teenagers were escorted towards the doors by two columns of federal soldiers who were as young as the students. As they proceeded, the crowd of white men screamed racial insults, but no violence erupted. Had violence started, the outcome would have been unpredictable, since the M-14 rifles carried by the federal soldiers had no ammunition.

During the following week, the tension eased, and from the thousands of protestors of the first day, only a few hundred remained in front of the building. Many white parents dragged their children out of the school, and the paratroopers were temporarily replaced by federalized Arkansas National Guard troops, who were soon also removed. With the passing of time, Central High would become a majority black school, although honors classes would be primarily white. Sooner or later, most of the nine black students who opened a new chapter in policy implementation left Little Rock to seek lives away from threats and reprisals. Forty years after the incident, as the century was ending, they would return to their school. This time it was not necessary to escort them with a cordon of soldiers; they were welcomed back by a U.S. President wary of resegregation trends (see 1997: Little Rock Nine come back to school).

Sources:

Peterson, Jonathon (1997, September 26). This time, 'Little Rock Nine' get VIP treatment on entering school. Los Angeles Times: A14.

Pool, Bob (1997, September 26). Echoes of Little Rock. Los Angeles Times: B1, B6.

Rippa, S. Alexander (1997). Education in a free society: An American history. New York: Longman.

DS

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