Supreme Court

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

June 24, 1957 – Supreme Court Rules in Roth v United States

On June 24, 1957, the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled in Roth v United States that obscenity was not protected speech under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and press clause.  At the same time, the court set a new, far-reaching precedent by more strictly defining and limiting exactly what constituted obscenity, opening the door to years of ambiguity and case-by-case determinations (and the necessity for numerous screenings by the justices of alleged pornographic films and materials).

Samuel Roth was a New York City publisher and bookseller whose American Aphrodite quarterly (“for the fancy-free”) included erotica and nude photography.  Convicted under a federal statute for sending “obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy” materials through the mail, he appealed his case and the Supreme Court agreed to a hearing.  Prior to Roth v United States, the judicial standard for obscenity was established by common law rule in an 1868 English case as any material that tended to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences”.

The court denied Roth protection under the First Amendment, by a 6 – 3 decision.  Writing for the majority opinion, newly appointed Justice William J Brennan, Jr reaffirmed that obscenity was not protected speech, but went on to establish a new, narrower definition of obscenity as material whose “dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest” to the “average person, applying contemporary community standards”, and “utterly without redeeming social importance”.  The pornography industry grew rapidly following the Roth v United States decision.

Image Credit: American Aphrodite/Galactic Central Publications