September 25: General Interest
1957 : Central High School integrated
Under escort from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, nine black
students enter all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Three weeks earlier, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had surrounded the
school with National Guard troops to prevent its federal court-ordered
racial integration. After a tense standoff, President Dwight D.
Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent 1,000 army
paratroopers to Little Rock to enforce the court order.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v.
Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in educational
facilities was unconstitutional. Five days later, the Little Rock
School Board issued a statement saying it would comply with the
decision when the Supreme Court outlined the method and time frame in
which desegregation should be implemented.
Arkansas was at the time among the more progressive Southern states in
regard to racial issues. The University of Arkansas School of Law was
integrated in 1949, and the Little Rock Public Library in 1951. Even
before the Supreme Court ordered integration to proceed "with all
deliberate speed," the Little Rock School Board in 1955 unanimously
adopted a plan of integration to begin in 1957 at the high school
level. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP) filed suit, arguing the plan was too gradual, but a federal
judge dismissed the suit, saying that the school board was acting in
"utmost good faith." Meanwhile, Little Rock's public buses were
desegregated. By 1957, seven out of Arkansas' eight state universities
In the spring of 1957, there were 517 black students who lived in the
Central High School district. Eighty expressed an interest in
attending Central in the fall, and they were interviewed by the Little
Rock School Board, which narrowed down the number of candidates to 17.
Eight of those students later decided to remain at all-black Horace
Mann High School, leaving the "Little Rock Nine" to forge their way
into Little Rock's premier high school.
In August 1957, the newly formed Mother's League of Central High
School won a temporary injunction from the county chancellor to block
integration of the school, charging that it "could lead to violence."
Federal District Judge Ronald Davies nullified the injunction on
August 30. On September 2, Governor Orval Faubus--a staunch
segregationist--called out the Arkansas National Guard to surround
Central High School and prevent integration, ostensibly to prevent the
bloodshed he claimed desegregation would cause. The next day, Judge
Davies ordered integrated classes to begin on September 4.
That morning, 100 armed National Guard troops encircled Central High
School. A mob of 400 white civilians gathered and turned ugly when the
black students began to arrive, shouting racial epithets and
threatening the teenagers with violence. The National Guard troops
refused to let the black students pass and used their clubs to control
the crowd. One of the nine, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, was
surrounded by the mob, which threatened to lynch her. She was finally
led to safety by a sympathetic white woman.
Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann condemned Faubus' decision to call out
the National Guard, but the governor defended his action, reiterating
that he did so to prevent violence. The governor also stated that
integration would occur in Little Rock when and if a majority of
people chose to support it. Faubus' defiance of Judge Davies' court
order was the first major test of Brown v. Board of Education and the
biggest challenge of the federal government's authority over the
states since the Reconstruction Era.
The standoff continued, and on September 20 Judge Davies ruled that
Faubus had used the troops to prevent integration, not to preserve law
and order as he claimed. Faubus had no choice but to withdraw the
National Guard troops. Authority over the explosive situation was put
in the hands of the Little Rock Police Department.
On September 23, as a mob of 1,000 whites milled around outside
Central High School, the nine black students managed to gain access to
a side door. However, the mob became unruly when it learned the black
students were inside, and the police evacuated them out of fear for
their safety. That evening, President Eisenhower issued a special
proclamation calling for opponents of the federal court order to
"cease and desist." On September 24, Little Rock's mayor sent a
telegram to the president asking him to send troops to maintain order
and complete the integration process. Eisenhower immediately
federalized the Arkansas National Guard and approved the deployment of
U.S. troops to Little Rock. That evening, from the White House, the
president delivered a nationally televised address in which he
explained that he had taken the action to defend the rule of law and
prevent "mob rule" and "anarchy." On September 25, the Little Rock
Nine entered the school under heavily armed guard.
Troops remained at Central High School throughout the school year, but
still the black students were subjected to verbal and physical
assaults from a faction of white students. Melba Patillo, one of the
nine, had acid thrown in her eyes, and Elizabeth Eckford was pushed
down a flight of stairs. The three male students in the group were
subjected to more conventional beatings. Minnijean Brown was suspended
after dumping a bowl of chili over the head of a taunting white
student. She was later suspended for the rest of the year after
continuing to fight back. The other eight students consistently turned
the other cheek. On May 27, 1958, Ernest Green, the only senior in the
group, became the first black to graduate from Central High School.
Governor Faubus continued to fight the school board's integration
plan, and in September 1958 he ordered Little Rock's three high
schools closed rather than permit integration. Many Little Rock
students lost a year of education as the legal fight over
desegregation continued. In 1959, a federal court struck down Faubus'
school-closing law, and in August 1959 Little Rock's white high
schools opened a month early with black students in attendance. All
grades in Little Rock public schools were finally integrated in 1972.