desegregation

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.

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.

Image Credit: U.S. Army

September 15, 1957 – Mike Wallace Interviews Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus

Governor Orval Faubus

On September 15, 1957, the Mike Wallace Interview show on ABC aired a conversation between host Mike Wallace and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, current Commander-in-Chief of the Arkansas National Guard on duty in front of Little Rock Central High School.  Gov. Faubus had just met with Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, at the President’s request, to clarify his reasons for defying a federal court order to integrate Little Rock High.  Faubus stated that he intended to respect the decisions of the court and fully cooperate and carry out his responsibilities for integrating Arkansas schools.  The Guard, he maintained, had been called out to “keep the peace and order of the community” which was “paramount to all other issues”.

Gov. Faubus told Wallace that at this time “it would not be possible to integrate without disorder and violence” and “the troops will still be on duty in the morning”.  They would be taken off duty only “under a condition of tranquility and general acceptance by the people”, the presence of which it would be his responsibility to determine “on the basis of facts and information that are available to me”.  “Eighty-two percent of the people agreed that disorder and violence would have occurred, had not I taken the action which I did,” Faubus claimed.

Wallace pressed Faubus for documentation of his claims regarding incipient violence, but Faubus refused to reveal the material he said he had turned over to the FBI, pending possible court litigation.

Wallace then asked Gov. Faubus why he had not ordered the Arkansas Guard to protect the African-American children and enable them to enter the schools, rather than prevent their entry.  Faubus replied that “the best way to prevent the violence was to remove the cause”.  Faubus pointed out that other school districts in Arkansas, the state colleges, and local transportation systems had all integrated without interference on his part because they were able to do so peacefully.  Not so Little Rock.

Faubus stated, “malice, envy, hate is deplorable, in any place or in any circumstances, but as President Eisenhower has said himself, you can’t change the hearts of people by law . . . all I’ve ever asked for, is some time for the situation to change for it to become acceptable, so that there would not be disorder and violence.  If [integration] is right, it will come about.  So, why should we be so impatient as to want to force it, because force begets force, hate begets hate, malice begets malice.”

Faubus also proclaimed his belief that “some of the finest citizens we have in Arkansas are Negro citizens and many of them have most responsible positions and they carry them out with credit to themselves and the State and the Nation and the citizenry as a whole.  I believe that each person should be judged upon his individual merits and that it should not apply to races, or classes or groups.”

Image Credit: Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

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.

 

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.

Image Credits: Library of Congress; Tami Heilemann/National Park Service

November 5, 1957 – Election Day in Little Rock, Arkansas

Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann talks with Col. William Kuhn, commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Photo: US Army

Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann talks with Col. William Kuhn, commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Photo: US Army

On November 5, 1957, the first Tuesday in November, voters in integration battlefield Little Rock, Arkansas went to the polls to elect a new mayor.  The incumbent, Democrat Woodrow Wilson Mann, had decided not to run for a second term.  Mann’s election campaign in 1955 to put Little Rock’s first Republican mayor, Pratt C. Remmel, out of office, had been blessed by Arkansas’ Governor Orval Faubus, Senator James Fulbright, and Representatives Brooks Hays and Wilbur Mills, all Democrats.  But by the late fall of 1957, Mann knew he had fallen from grace with his state party machine.

The Little Rock school district had been ordered to integrate, starting with the 1957 school year, in compliance with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.  Nine African-American students had enrolled in Little Rock Central High and attempted to attend the first day of classes in September.  Gov. Faubus had responded by activating the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the teenagers from entering the school.  Even though he never supported classroom integration, Mann wrote, in one of a series of articles later published by the New York Herald Tribune in 1958, he felt bound to uphold the law in the Supreme Court’s ruling against desegregation.  He contradicted Faubus’ interpretation of the events surrounding the crisis, asserting that the Guard troops weren’t necessary to prevent violence.  A small group of organized agitators, and weak-kneed Faubus’ political pandering were to blame.  “Left to ourselves we could easily complied with the law,” he asserted.

So on a fateful day in September, Mayor Mann telegraphed President Dwight Eisenhower.  “I am pleading to you as president of the United States to provide the necessary troops within several hours”, he wrote, adding that an armed mob was growing by the minute.  Eisenhower deployed the Army’s 101st Airborne and the Little Rock Nine, as the students came to be known, entered Central High.  Roy Reed, author of a biography of Orval Faubus and reporter for the Arkansas Gazette at the time, said Mayor Mann “did what needed to be done and stood up”, adding, “It almost certainly cost him any future that he had in politics in Arkansas.”  Gov. Faubus subsequently expressed his regret over ever having supported Woodrow Mann for mayor.

With the political writing on the wall, and crosses burning on his front lawn, Mann decided not to run for reelection.  Democrat and construction company owner Werner C. Knoop was voted into office on November 5th, along with a slate of new school board members, one of which ran on a militantly anti-integration platform.  Mann, an insurance broker who as mayor had taken small but significant steps toward racial equality in Little Rock city government, relocated to Houston, where he stood a better chance of success in business.  He remained in Houston, where he retired in 1990, and passed away in 2002 at the age of 85.