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