President Eisenhower

September 25, 1957 – The First Day, a New Day, at Little Rock Central High

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort Little Rock Nine students into all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Photo: US Army

On September 25, 1957, the Little Rock Nine – Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Beals – entered the halls of Little Rock Central High School for the first time.  The 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army had arrived in Little Rock the day before, at President Dwight Eisenhower’s order.  Early on the morning of the 25th, a Wednesday, the highly decorated and prestigious “Screaming Eagles”, who served valiantly on the beaches of Normandy, in the Battle of the Bulge, and in Vietnam, once again answered the call to serve their country in battle.  This day’s battle was for educational freedom and against racial prejudice.

With the first day of classes behind them, the Little Rock Nine and the 101st won the first skirmish in the long war for equal opportunity, against physical – or virtual – segregation.

101st Airborne escorts Little Rock Nine. Photo: US Army

101st Airborne escorts Little Rock Nine. Photo: US Army

September 9, 1957 – Civil Rights Triumph and Tragedy

Crowd in the street after Hattie Cotton School bombing, September, 1957. Photo: Nashville Public Library and Emory University Libraries.

 

On September 9, 1957, two earth-shaking events occurred in the history of American civil rights.

In Washington, DC, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, an important milestone on the road to equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or religion.

In Nashville, Tennessee, following the first day of school in which 13 six-year-old African-American children entered first grade, a bomb exploded and completely destroyed a wing of Hattie Cotton Elementary School.

The Nashville school system was slowly, grudgingly complying with Brown vs. Board of Education, a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954 which declared racial segregation in public schools a violation of the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.  Nashville’s plan called for a “stairstep” road to integration, allowing admission of 13 African-American first-graders into previously all-white schools.  Gradually, each year, another grade would be integrated so that at the end of 12 years, African-American students would receive high school diplomas along with privileged whites.  In 1954, there were four separate school systems in Nashville, two overlapping districts in the central city, and two in the suburbs.  One of each pair was tacitly designated for whites, the other for African-Americans.  These districts were by no stretch of the imagination equal; facilities were grossly unequal by almost every measure.

Three tortuous years later, parents of white students were boycotting the first day of school in protest of even the barest beginnings of desegregation.  Angry, vicious words were spoken by visitor John Kasper of New Jersey, who was jailed and charged with incitement to riot.  Mayor Ben West and school officials stood by their decision to admit the new students.  Following the explosion and destruction at Hattie Cotton, one school official told Time Magazine, “This is no longer a matter of segregation or desegregation.  This is a matter of sheer lawlessness.  We’re up against thugs.”

Repairs were made to Hattie Cotton Elementary School and it reopened in January, 1958.  It remains open to this day.

September 4, 1957 – The Crisis in Little Rock

The Little Rock Nine, with Daisy Bates, Arkansas State Press and Arkansas State Conference of NAACP, back row second from left. Photo source: Library of Congress

 

On September 4, 1957, nine high school students got up, got dressed, ate breakfast, and headed off to their first day at a new high school.  Men in uniform, holding guns, were waiting for them.  Hostile crowds yelled, threatened, and spat on them.  Unable to enter the building, they turned around and headed home.

But the nation was watching.  The Little Rock Nine, as they came to be called, became a galvanizing image in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.  Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Beals were only fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds, but their courage earned them an enduring place in the history of our country and the history of freedom.

The United States Supreme Court, in Brown vs. Board of Education, declared in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional and ordered all schools to develop desegregation plans.  The school board of Little Rock, Arkansas decided to comply with the ruling and created a plan to gradually integrate the district schools, beginning in the fall of 1957.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been spearheading the drive to register African-American students across the South, enrolled the Little Rock Nine in previously all-white Little Rock Central High School.  With classes scheduled to start on September 4th, and segregationist councils agitating, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard on September 3rd to block access to the school for any non-white students.  They carried out their job.

On September 5th, Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann called on President Eisenhower for help.  Eisenhower responded and on September 24th the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army was posted to Little Rock, the President federalized and took control of the Arkansas National Guard, and Ernest, Elizabeth, Jefferson, Terrence, Carlotta, Minnijean, Gloria, Thelma, and Melba started classes on September 25, 1957.

Their troubles and difficulties were far from over.  They were subjected to verbal and physical abuse in which school authorities were less than willing to intervene.  Integration of the school continued, and more African-American students were enrolled at Central High.

The heroic Little Rock Nine were unanimous in their declaration of who the real heroes were that September, and that school year.  They credited their parents, “who supported them and kept the faith that the process was right and that what they endured would give them opportunities they deserved”.  Each of the nine students has gone on to live extraordinary lives and leave a legacy of courage for others to follow.

The Little Rock Nine at the dedication of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site’s new visitor center, 2007, with National Park Service Director Mary Bomar, US Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, and US Representative John Lewis. Photo source: Tami Heilemann/National Park Service

 

August 14, 1957 – Interstate Highway Sign Design Adopted

On August 14, 1957, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) adopted the familiar red and blue shield design for interstate highway markers.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, had been impressed by Germany’s well-engineered Autobahn.  He could see the value of a system of high-quality roads for the United States, as well, and through persistent efforts persuaded Congress to approve and fund the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.  The initial mileage to be constructed with federal funds was set at 41,000 miles, which was later increased.  Currently, the interstate system covers 46, 876 miles of American countryside.

The AASHO was given the task of numbering the new network of gleaming asphalt.  They decided to use a mirror image of the numbering system created for the US highway system; low numbers would start on the West Coast (I5, etc) and then increase  moving east across the continent.  AASHO’s Executive Secretary, Alf Johnson, created a map of officially numbered routes, which was adopted in September, 1957.

But a design for a special sign to mark individual routes on this new transportation web was needed.  AASHO decided to get state highway officials involved by inviting them to submit their own proposals – a contest of sorts.  The best designs were installed on a road leading to the site of a highway officials’ meeting in Illinois.  On their way to the meeting, attendees were asked to observe the signs, both in daylight and at night.  Which ones did they like?  Which were the most visible and easiest to read?  Which ones said “Get out on the road and explore this great country!” to them?  The AASHO gathered their feedback, and the Texas shield design was declared the winner, with the addition of the word “Interstate” across the top as suggested by Missouri (the “Show-Me” and also, evidently, “Tell-Me” state).  The final design was approved on August 14, 1957.  It has since been trademarked to prevent advertising signs from capitalizing on and diverting interstate motorists’ attention from the road ahead.

Interstate Highway Numbering Plan

Interstate Highway Numbering Plan