Today marks the 61st anniversary of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Throughout the week we will be publishing historical posts to commemorate this anniversary, starting today with an overview of the incident.
On September 4, 1957, nine African American students attempted to attend a previously all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, but were prevented from entering by an angry mob and the Arkansas National Guard. Three years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, the South largely ignored the ruling and schools remained segregated. The nine African American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, challenged the South’s refusal to integrate and exercised their right to choose which high school they would attend. These students wanted to study at Little Rock Central High School because it was known as the city’s best high school and they now had the right to attend it.
Pending the arrival of the nine African American students, on their first day, an angry mob of 400 people and 100 members of the Arkansas National Guard blocked the entrance to the school. The National Guard was called in by Arkansas Governor, Orval Faubus, for the purpose of preventing the African American students from entering the school. Faubus claimed that preventing the students from entering the school was for their own benefit and that violence could erupt if they were allowed to enter. His actions directly opposed a court order requiring the school to integrate. While the National Guard’s presence at Central High School was ordered by the state, an angry mob arrived on its own. Members of the mob uttered racist slurs, threw stones at the students and threatened to kill the students. Due to the horrible violence they faced, the students were forced to leave.
A few weeks later, the students were able to return to Little Rock Central High School with help from the federal government. President Eisenhower was furious with the situation in Little Rock and stated “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts” (Eisenhower). Eisenhower sent 1,200 troops from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the African American students. On September 25, 1957, the presence of federal troops gave the students the ability to attend school. Each of the nine students were provided with a personal military escort for the rest of the school year. However, the troops were not allowed to enter classrooms, locker rooms or bathrooms, which left the African American students vulnerable to harassment, threats and violence in such locations. As a result, the students faced constant racism and abuse when they could not be protected by the troops.
However, even though the federal government was heavily enforcing the court order requiring integration, Governor Faubus would not allow integration to occur. Faubus closed all three of Little Rock's high schools instead of integrating them. Arkansas’ governor chose to deny education to all of Little Rock’s high school students rather than allow racial integration. It wasn’t until 1960 that Central High School reopened as a desegregated institution.
The Little Rock Nine are now known as extremely influential members of the Civil Rights Movement. They have received various awards and honors for their enormous impact. For example, each member of the group was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Clinton in 1999. Each of them also received personal invitations to attend President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Their courage to stand up for their constitutional rights and their bravery to challenge such brutal racism are now widely respected.
For more information on the Little Rock Nine, please see:
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com