The Little Rock Nine’s attendance at a previously all-white high school was a milestone in the history of school desegregation. One may expect that decades after the Little Rock Nine endured horrible racism and violence to achieve integration, schools would be mostly or even completely desegregated. Although integration has been legally enforced for decades, American public schools still remain largely segregated. Carlotta Walls LaNier, a member of the Little Rock Nine, stated "Brown versus Board of Education, and let me tell you. The Civil Rights Act, the Housing Rights Act, the Voters Rights Act, that's all progress, and it all came from that foundation. So I'm not going to sit here and say that we're still living the same way, but I do see this pendulum swinging back in that particular direction [of the Jim Crow era]" (LaNier, Colorado Public Radio).
As LaNier and the other members of the Little Rock Nine experienced, many cities and school districts in the South largely ignored the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, requiring public schools to integrate. However, one city in the South intentionally integrated its schools: Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte even became known as “The city that made desegregation work.” Unfortunately, like in many American cities, Charlotte’s schools have become resegregated. James Ferguson, a civil rights attorney who fought for school integration in Charlotte, claims that racial segregation has resurged because “There is no core of people who are actively pushing for school desegregation… We’re almost back to where we started from” (Ferguson, Newsweek). His argument suggests that without proactive enforcement of racial integration, it is not likely to occur.
For a graph tracking a quantitative measure of segregation from 1960 to 2005, click here
The graph above shows racial segregation in schools as measured by black-white exposure. The black-white exposure index measures the degree to which African Americans and white people are exposed to each other. The graph shows that after integration in schools was enforced, black-white exposure increased until 1988. After 1988, black-white exposure decreased dramatically. The sharp decrease in African Americans and white people being exposed to each other suggests that racial segregation has increased.
Many people argue that racial re-segregation is not occurring, but rather that economic segregation may be occurring. This argument suggests that economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged families are becoming more distant from other with regards to location. Such separation results in their children being isolated from each other in schools. However, race and economic status are not so easily detached. Across the U.S., about 75% of African American and Latinx students attend lower income schools, whereas only about 33% of white students attend such schools (The Atlantic). These statistics highlight the close relationship between race and economic status. This relationship suggests that while economic segregation occurs, so does racial segregation.
The return of racial segregation is apparent to Carlotta Walls LaNier. She stated “We're 60 years and I'm looking at some of the same things that happened to me prior to that” (LaNier, Colorado Public Radio). The return of school segregation disrespects everything that LaNier and the other members of the Little Rock Nine endured and sacrificed in the name of integration.
For more information on modern racial segregation in schools, please see:
Gloria Ray Karlmark was 15 years-old when she entered Little Rock Central High School. Due to the color of her skin, she was harassed, threatened and abused regularly when she attended the previously all-white high school. For example, one white classmate consistently called her names and bumped into her. One time, the student knocked her across the floor. She endured hatred and violence to achieve racial integration in schools. Unfortunately, the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, refused to allow integration to continue to occur, so he closed all of Little Rock’s high schools.
After Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s high schools, Karlmark and her family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where she completed her high school education. She then studied at Illinois Institute of Technology, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Mathematics. She went on to work as a research assistant at the University of Chicago Research Medical Center. Karlmark later worked as a technical writer and systems analyst for the International Business Machine’s Nordic Laboratory in Sweden. She stayed in Sweden and studied patent law at Kungliga & Registreringsverket. After graduating, she practiced as a patent attorney for a few years. Karlmark then founded and became editor in chief of an international journal entitled Computers in Industry. She has since worked in Hilversum for Philips Telecommunications and in Eindhoven for Philips Lighting. Karlmark eventually retired in Amsterdam.
Karlmark has been recognized for her bravery and determination as a member of the Little Rock Nine. She earned the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Clinton. Gloria Ray Karlmark and the rest of the Little Rock Nine were extremely influential to the Civil Rights Movement.
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Terrence Roberts was only 15 years-old when he joined the fight for racial integration. Roberts enrolled at Central High School because “At age 15 I had already learned enough about what it meant to live under the oppressive conditions of legalized discrimination. I was primed and ready for change” (Roberts). Roberts endured hatred, threats and violence to achieve racial integration. Unfortunately, the efforts Roberts and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were temporarily halted when Arkansas’ Governor, Orval Faubus, closed all of Little Rock’s high schools to stop integration from occurring.
Since Central High was closed, Roberts moved to Los Angeles, California to complete his high school education. He then earned his Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from California State University, Los Angeles. He also received a Master of Arts in Social Welfare from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Roberts also earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Southern Illinois University. He has since worked as a professor at Pacific Union College and the Antioch University Los Angeles. Roberts has also been the assistant dean of the School of Social Welfare at UCLA and co-chair of the Master of Arts in Psychology program at the Antioch University Los Angeles. He has also served as the Director of Mental Health at St. Helena Hospital and Health Center. Currently, Roberts runs a management-consulting firm.
Roberts has been recognized extensively for his life’s work. He received the Spingarn Medal and the Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also earned the Congressional Gold Medal, which was given to him by President Clinton. Roberts’ work was also celebrated when he was given the Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Justice Award. He was also presented with the Robert S. Abbott Memorial Award. Roberts’ teaching was recognized when he was awarded Outstanding Teacher of the Year from the College of Human Resources at Southern Illinois University. Terrence Roberts has spent his life learning about and directly advocating for social justice.
For more on Mr. Roberts, please see:
Melba Pattillo Beals was eager to enroll at Central High School when the opportunity arose. She stated “I thought about all those times I’d gone past Central High, wanting to go inside… I reasoned that if schools were open to my people, I would also get access to other opportunities I had been denied…” (Beals). Beals was inspired to enroll at Central High after visiting desegregated Cincinnati, Ohio. On this trip, she was treated like a full human being as opposed to being treated as less than one in the South. She also wanted to attend Central High because it had a prestigious reputation and provided much greater educational opportunities than did segregated African American schools.
When they began studying at Central High, Beals and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were consistently harassed, threatened and abused. For example, a male classmate approached Beals with a water gun filled with acid and shot the acid into her eyes. Luckily, she was able to wash the acid out in time to preserve her vision. Beals and her African American classmates endured more violence than many people can even comprehend in order to achieve racial integration in schools.
After Governor Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s High Schools, Beals moved to California, where she completed her high school education. While she was in California, she lived with sponsors who were members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from San Francisco State University. She also earned her Master of Arts in Journalism from Columbia University. Beals has gone on to work as a reporter for NBC’s Bay Area affiliate and a public television station in San Francisco. She has also done motivational speaking and worked as a communications consultant.
Beals received the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people and the Congressional Gold Medal from President Clinton. She was also the first member of the Little Rock Nine to write a book about what she experienced at Central High School. Titles of her books include Warriors Don’t Cry, March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine, and I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire. Melba Pattillo Beals is recognized for her immense role in the Civil Rights Movement.
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Ernest Green was the oldest of the Little Rock Nine, entering Central High School his senior year. At this school, he and the eight other African American students were subjected to harsh racism and violence. Green stood up for his right to attend central because “My parents instilled in me the belief that if I fought hard enough, I could compete on an even playing field with everyone else. This is partially what drove me to be one of the first black students to integrate at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas” (Green). Green went on to become the first African American to graduate from Little Rock Central High School. After graduating from Central High, Green earned both his Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and Master of Arts in Sociology from Michigan State University.
Green then worked in the field of employment law. He took on an apprenticeship with the Adolph Institute, which helps minority women find professional careers in the South. He also directed the A. Phillip Randolf Education fund. Green eventually served as the Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs under the Carter administration. He has since worked in the field of investment banking.
Ernest Green has received awards and recognition for his lifelong commitment to racial equality. He received honorary doctorates from Central State University, Tougaloo College and Michigan State University. Additionally, Green received the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congressional Gold Medal from President Clinton. He has also served on boards for several organizations, including: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the African Development Foundation. He was also honored at his graduation from Little Rock Central High School when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended. Dr. King attended because Green was the first African American to graduate from Central High and he symbolized a milestone in the history of racial integration.
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Thelma Mothershed Wair attended Little Rock Central High School for her junior year. Since Governor Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s high schools the following year to prevent integration, Wair attended summer school and took correspondence courses to earn the credits necessary for a high school diploma. She then earned her Bachelor of Arts in Home Economics, her Master of Science in Guidance and Counseling Education, and an administrative certificate in Education at Southern Illinois University. Wair then spent 28 years of her career as a home economics teacher. When reflecting on her time as an educator, Wair stated “I was determined to treat my kids equally” (Wair). This determination likely stemmed from her experiences directly combating unequal treatment of students. She also taught survival skills to women at a Red Cross homeless shelter and worked at a juvenile detention center.
Wair has received recognition for her teaching and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. She was recognized as an Outstanding Role Model by the Top Ladies of Distinction in east St. Louis and the early childhood/pre-kindergarten of her school district. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded her the Spingarn Medal. She also earned the Congressional Gold Medal, which she received from President Clinton. Both as a student and a teacher, Thelma Mothershed Wair embodies the concept of equality in schools.
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Kelly Coltrain, a twenty-seven year old woman, was incarcerated in a Nevada county jail because she did not pay her traffic tickets on time. Feeling unwell, she asked to go to the hospital. As her condition worsened instead of being allowed treatment she was handed a mop and instructed to clean up her own vomit. She died less than an hour later. Even after a deputy noticed she was unresponsive no medical personnel were brought to the scene, and she lay dead in her cell for hours.
For more on this tragic, avoidable incident please see: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/09/02/texas-woman-died-denied-treatment-jail/1182381002/
Elizabeth Eckford was the only member of the Little Rock Nine to arrive at the first day of school alone. The night before, following the announcement that the National Guard would be at Central High, it was arranged for all of the African American students to arrive at school together. However, Eckford’s family did not own a phone, so she was not informed of the new plan. She recalls that “The night before when the governor went on television and announced that he had called out the Arkansas National Guard, I thought he had done this to insure the protection of all the students” (Eckford). She was unaware of the fact that the National Guard was actually called in to prevent the African American students from entering the school. When she arrived alone, she was harassed and threatened by the mob that surrounded the school. White people called for her to be lynched, told her to go back to Africa and yelled racial slurs at her. When she attempted to enter the school, members of the National Guard prevented her from doing so. It was only after being denied entry by several troops that she realized the real reason for the National Guard’s presence.
Although federal troops were eventually sent in to ensure that the African American students could attend school and protect them, the students still faced harassment and violence constantly. For example, during school, white students threw vegetables and eggs at Eckford, spat on her, and punched her.
Even though the African American students were abused at Central High, Arkansas Governor, Orval Faubus, still could not stand to see them at Central High. As a result, he decided to close all of the city’s high schools to stop racial integration from occurring. The schools eventually reopened and were required to integrate, but Eckford did not return. She took night courses and correspondence courses, earning enough credits to graduate without returning to Central High. She then attended Knox College and Central State University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in History. She later went on to serve in the U.S. Army for five years as a pay clerk and later as an information specialist.
Unfortunately, Eckford has faced depression and trauma throughout her life as a result of the abuse she endured while attending Little Rock Central High School.
Elizabeth Eckford has received numerous awards for her courage and bravery as a member of the Little Rock Nine. She received the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also earned the Father Joseph Blitz Award from the National Conference for Community and Justice. Furthermore, she was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by President Clinton. Eckford also wrote a book entitled The Worst First Day: Bullied while Desegregating Central High. Elizabeth Eckford is celebrated for the enormous role she played in the Civil Rights Movement. The haunting image of Eckford being screamed at by white people brought international attention to the issue of American racial segregation.
Jefferson Thomas was 15 years-old when he started at Little Rock Central High School. He volunteered to attend the previously all-white school because he knew that it offered better educational opportunities than the African American school he previously attended. He and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were initially prevented from attending Central High because angry mobs and the Arkansas National Guard denied them entry to the school because they were African American. After several weeks, the students were eventually able to attend because federal troops were sent in to protect them.
Thomas and the other students faced constant harassment and violence from their white classmates. The white students always stared at Thomas, but he claimed “That’s natural that somebody is going to stare...It’s like kids going to a circus for the first time and seeing an elephant there. They stare” (Thomas). Aside from being stared at, Thomas was subjected to far worse abuse. One time, a white student punched him from behind, knocking him out. He was so fearful for his safety that every day when school ended, he ran home rather than walked. He also needed protection so one of his older brothers would wait for him when school got out, holding a tire iron in case he needed to defend his brother. Thomas endured constantly feeling unsafe because “If one of us had quit, that would have shown a weakness in our unity” (Thomas).
Thomas was one of the three members of the Little Rock Nine to graduate from Central High School. After graduating, he began college at Wayne State University, then transferred to Los Angeles State College, where he was president of the Associated Engineers and he was involved in student government. He then went on to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. After serving, he returned to Los Angeles State College, where he earned a degree in Business Administration. Thomas worked as an accountant for the remainder of his career and eventually worked for the Department of Defense.
Thomas has been recognized for his commitment to racial equality. He received the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1958. He also earned the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award that can be given to a civilian, from President Clinton in 1999. Thomas was also presented with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Ohio Dominican University.
Jefferson Thomas died from pancreatic cancer on September 5, 2010. He was the first member of the Little Rock Nine to pass away. The other members of the group remember Thomas for his sense of humor. The country remembers him as an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. President Obama stated “Mr. Thomas was just a teenager when he became one of the first African-American students to enroll in Little Rock Central High School. Yet even at such a young age, he had the courage to risk his own safety, to defy a governor and a mob, and to walk proudly into that school even though it would have been far easier to give up and turn back” (Obama).
Minnijean Brown Trickey was 15 years-old when she started at Little Rock Central High School. She registered to attend Central High after she heard an announcement about having the ability to do so on the intercom at her school at the time, Horace Mann School for African-Americans. The main motivation behind her decision to switch schools was that Central High was walking distance from her house and Horace Mann was across town and did not provide any transportation services.
When Trickey was preparing to start at Central High, she didn’t expect much of a reaction to herself and the other African American students. Unfortunately, the reaction of racist white people was larger than anyone could have expected. From before they were able to step foot in the door through when they left Central High, the Little Rock Nine endured constant abuse in many forms. Trickey explained that “The abuse actually escalated over time because the 101st left, and it never ever calmed down. It didn’t suddenly become nice, it didn’t suddenly become pleasant; it was constant” (Trickey). For example, there was a group of girls who frequently spat on her, stepped on her heels and harassed her. One day, Trickey had enough of the abuse. The girls threw a purse at her in homeroom and Trickey told them to leave her alone and called them white trash. As a result, she was suspended and later expelled from Central High School. When she was leaving, white students passed around cards that stated “One down, eight to go.”
After she was expelled from Central High, Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark, African American psychologists, invited Trickey to live with them in New York City. These doctors conducted research that produced the now famous “doll tests” that showed how racial segregation negatively impacted African American children. The doll tests were used in and influenced the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In New York, Trickey attended and graduated from the New Lincoln School, a school that specialized in the arts. She then went on to study journalism at Southern Illinois University. Over time, Trickey continued to express strong commitment to her values. One example that showed this commitment was when she moved to Canada to protest the Vietnam War. In Canada, she earned both bachelors and masters degrees in social work. After returning to the U.S., she was a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Workforce Diversity at Department of the Interior under the Clinton administration.
Currently, Minnijean Brown Trickey is still extremely involved in social activism. She works in relation to issues such as the environment, peacemaking and youth leadership. One of Trickey’s favorite moments was when she spoke at an award ceremony for Malala Yousafzai, a young woman who was shot in the head by the Taliban because she advocated for women to be educated. Trickey sees herself and the Little Rock Nine in Malala. Both Malala and the Little Rock Nine stood up for their right to education and were abused as a result. When reflecting back on everything she endured as one of the Little Rock Nine, Minnijean Brown Trickey stated that “It wasn’t pleasant but it had to be done. I don’t regret it” (Trickey).
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