LITTLE ROCK NINE
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on one of the most important decisions in modern American history. The case of Brown v. Board of Education had come before the Supreme Court two years earlier and a decision was ready to be made. While providing the conclusion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place”, stating that the premise lead to segregated schools being “inherently unequal”. From that day forward, there would be no more segregation in the public school systems, black and other minority children would now be allowed to attend formerly all-white schools.
Prior to this decision, many states had not only allowed segregation in schools, but mandated it. In many of these states, the ruling on the famous court case was not taken seriously, leading to a lesser known decision known as Brown II which ordered districts to integrate “with all deliberate speed”. Like many other issues during the Civil Rights Movement, the Integration movement was critical in the Deep South. Montgomery, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia are famously known for acting as the setting for key junctures in the battle for Civil Rights. This time however, it was Little Rock, Arkansas that would serve as the stage for the movement to progress.
There was plenty of opposition against the integration of schools, but the NAACP and the school board for Little Rock decided to proceed with the plans for a gradual integration, beginning in the fall of 1957. Two prominent, pro-segregation groups formed to oppose the plan for integration in Little Rock: The Capital Citizens Council and the Mother’s League of Central High School. Tensions began to brew, and it became clear to all involved that the process of integration would be tumultuous for all involved.
Although it was clear that there would be problematic and potentially dangerous opposition to their plan, Daisy Gaston Bates of the Arkansas NAACP recruited nine students who registered to be the first African Americans to attend Central High School in Little Rock. Their names were Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls. These students became known as the Little Rock Nine.
As if the protesting groups and hostile crowds were not enough to make things difficult for the students and the NAACP, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus announced that he would call in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school, claiming that it was for the students’ own protection. The show must go on however, as federal judge Richard Davies issued a ruling that desegregation would continue as planned. The fight would begin automatically though as the students first attempt to attend school was on September 4th, where they were spat on and followed by mobs in the streets. The Little Rock 9 would not attend a full day of class until September 25, and that was only after President Eisenhower sent 1,200 soldiers to escort the students inside.
It was claimed that the students had largely positive experiences in school, but many instances were not civil, with Melba Patillo getting beaten and having acid thrown in her face, Gloria Ray was pushed down a flight of stairs, and Minnijean Brown was expelled from Central High School for retaliation against an attack. Ernest Green would go on to be the first African-American to graduate from Central High School, being that he was the only senior, but a year after the Little Rock Nine’s inclusion in the high school, Governor Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s high schools, and they would not reopen until a year later, in August of 1959.