On Tuesday morning we woke up in Little Rock, Arkansas with plans to drive past Little Rock Central High School, site of a major test in 1957 of the Civil Rights act where nine (the Little Rock Nine) African-American students integrated the all-white school.
We didn’t realize that our “drive by” would turn into a much more profound, educating and moving experience until we pulled up to the site and discovered that it was more than just a high school with a historical plaque. It was a National Parks historic site.
Little Rock Central High School is the only functioning high school to be located within the boundaries of a national historic site. Across the street sat a National Parks Visitor Center that depicted the struggle through exhibits and photos.
We began at the Visitor Center. The story of the Little Rock Nine is one we have all read about in our high school history books, but the story of those nine brave high school students and the effect their stand had on the course of history really came to life as we walked around the Visitor Center.
In a key event of the American Civil Rights Movement, nine black students enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, testing a landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The court had mandated that all public schools in the country be integrated “with all deliberate speed” in its decision related to the groundbreaking case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas called in the state National Guard to bar the black students’ entry into the school. Later in the month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” into the school, and they started their first full day of classes on September 25.
We were moved by the photos of that day,
As we read the words of those who were there,
And as we listened to the actual first hand accounts of those involved.
As we walked through the Visitor Center the reality of a world that now seems so foreign to my generation and my children’s generation, became real.
We listened as a park ranger walked visitors through the events of those days. His deep, melodic voice painting a picture of what happened on this site, a picture far more impactful than the watered down version we read about in our history books.
The concept of segregation and such intense hate over the idea of integration is so foreign to me. It is so far removed from the reality of the world I was raised in decades later, and unrecognizable to the world my children live in today, that I find it surreal that this event was only 60 years ago.
If your remembrance of that historic event was as cloudy as mine was prior to visiting this site here is some background on this historical encounter as taken from the History Channel’s website:
Little Rock Nine Recruited
Despite the opposition, nine students registered to be the first African Americans to attend Central High School, which opened in 1927 and was originally called Little Rock Senior High School. Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls had been recruited by Daisy Gaston Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP. Daisy Bates and others from the Arkansas NAACP carefully vetted the group of students and determined they all possessed the strength and determination to face the resistance they would encounter. In the weeks prior to the start of the new school year, the students participated in intensive counseling sessions guiding them on what to expect once classes began and how to respond to anticipated hostile situations. The group came to be known as the Little Rock Nine.
On September 2, 1957, Governor Orval Faubus announced that he would call in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the African-American students’ entry to Central High, claiming this action was for the students’ own protection. In a televised address, Faubus insisted that violence and bloodshed might break out if black students were allowed to enter the school. The following day, the Mother’s League held a sunrise service at the school as a protest against integration. That same day, federal judge Richard Davies issued a ruling that desegregation would continue as planned the next day.
Students Turned Away by State Troops
The Little Rock Nine arrived for the first day of school at Central High on September 4, 1957. Eight arrived together, driven by Bates. Eckford’s family, however, did not have a telephone, and Bates could not reach her to let her know of the carpool plans. Therefore, Eckford arrived alone. The Arkansas National Guard ultimately prevented any of the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High. One of the most enduring images from this day is a photograph of Eckford, notebook in hand, stoically approaching the school as a crowd of hostile and screaming white students and adults surround her. Eckford later recalled that one of the women spat on her. The image was printed and broadcast widely, bringing the Little Rock controversy to national and international attention.
In the following weeks, Judge Davies began legal proceedings against Governor Faubus, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower attempted to persuade Faubus toremove the National Guard and let the Little Rock Nine enter the school. Davies ordered the Guard removed on September 20, and the Little Rock Police Department took over to maintain order. The police escorted the nine African-American students into the school on September 23, through an angry mob of some 1,000 white protesters gathered outside. Amidst ensuing rioting, the police removed the nine students. On September 24, President Eisenhower sent in 1,200 members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and placed them in charge of the 10,000 National Guardsmen on duty. Escorted by the troops, the Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of classes on September 25.
Legal challenges to integration continued throughout the year, and Faubus publicly expressed his wish on numerous occasions that the Little Rock Nine be removed from Central High. Although several of the black students had positive experiences on their first day of school, according to a September 25, 1957, report in The New York Times, they experienced routine harassment and even violence throughout the rest of the year. Patillo, for instance, was kicked, beaten and had acid thrown in her face, and at one point white students burned an African-American effigy in a vacant lot across from the school. Ray was pushed down a flight of stairs, and the Little Rock Nine were barred from participating in extracurricular activities. Brown was expelled from Central High in February 1958 for retaliating against the attacks. And it was not only the students who faced harassment: Ray’s mother was fired from her job with the State of Arkansas when she refused to remove her daughter from the school. The 101st Airborne and the National Guard remained at Central High for the duration of the year.
On May 25, 1958, Green, the only senior among the Little Rock Nine, became the first African-American graduate of Central High.
In September 1958, one year after Central High was integrated, Governor Faubus closed Little Rock’s high schools for the entire year, pending a public vote, to prevent African-American attendance. Little Rock citizens voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration and the schools remained closed. Other than Green, the rest of the Little Rock Nine completed their high school careers via correspondence or at other high schools across the country. Eckford joined the Army and later earned her General Education Equivalency diploma. Little Rock’s high schools reopened in August 1959.
Several of the Little Rock Nine went on to distinguished careers. Green served as assistant secretary of the federal Department of Labor under President Jimmy Carter (1924-). Brown worked as deputy assistant secretary for work force diversity in the Department of the Interior under President Bill Clinton. Patillo worked as a reporter for NBC. The group has been widely recognized for their significant role in civil rights history. In 1999, President Clinton awarded each member of the group the Congressional Gold Medal. The nine also all received personal invitations to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
Jefferson Thomas became the first of the Little Rock Nine to die when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 67 on September 5, 2010. After graduating from Central High, Thomas served in the Army in Vietnam, earned a business degree and worked as an accountant for private companies and the Department of Defense.
We then walked across the street to Little Rock Central High School, the scene for this historical event. It is still a functioning school so access is only allowed with a park ranger led tour.
The school is stunningly beautiful. As we stood outside I thought of all the photos I saw at the Visitor Center and could imagine the chaos that reigned on these school grounds during that period of American History. It was sobering.
We ended our visit with a film at the Visitor Center. It was awesome and I highly recommend if you are able to visit this site that you make time to watch the 30 minute video presentation. In it the men and women who were the Little Rock Nine are interviewed and asked questions about their choice to volunteer. They speak of what life was like that year in high school, the choice they made to not retaliate, but rather be peaceful in their resistance. They spoke of how being one of the Little Rock Nine changed the course of their lives and the history of a nation. It was powerful to watch the interviews of these men and women who are now in their 70’s speak about the impact we can each have as human beings when we stand up for what we believe.
The video then transitioned to three stories of youth today who are making an impact on their communities. One story spoke of youth in Baltimore who are fighting legislation to allocate funds for a new juvenile prison in their community, funds that they are asking be put towards education and other preventive programs. Another story spoke of youth on a Native American Reservation who are using social media to change the world’s perception of life on reservations. And the third story was about youth in New Mexico who have engaged in a battle against a big coal corporation to pass emission laws to protect their air quality.
The thread that connected the stories of the youth today with the interviews with the Little Rock Nine was the powerful message that we have the power to better our communities. We can take a stand and say, “This is not acceptable.” We can demand better of our leaders and of our nation. It was a powerful message, especially for my teens, that we can ALL have an impact for good if we are courageous and persistent in our beliefs.
It was an ideal message to end our experience with…
An experience none of us will soon forget.