Segregationist Resistance and the Little Rock Central High School Crisis, 1957

“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” After the Supreme Court had declared school segregation to be unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, the states had to follow this ruling and start the process of integration. In this process, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, rather surprisingly became the symbol for white resistance against desegregation.

Because Governor Orval Faubus had been considered a moderate on the topic of segregation, and the city at this point had already integrated other areas of the public sphere, many expected the high school integration to go over smoothly. In 1957, the school board created an integration plan and the local NAACP chapter chose nine African American students with high academic achievements to desegregate Central High School by September. These brave teenagers would become known as the “Little Rock Nine.”

9 Young Blacks Facing Mob and Military

The black students were encouraged to wait until the second day of class to come to the school to avoid tension. Despite this precaution, events would escalate quickly. On September 3rd, when the black teenagers approached their new school, they were met by a large crowd of angry white protesters. Additionally, Governor Faubus had sent the Arkansas national guard, officially to prevent “disorder.” Both the military and the mob were blocking the way to the entrance of the building. The image below shows Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine students, attempting to enter the school while a mob yelled at the young woman and tried to intimidate her.

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Elizabeth Eckford trying to enter Central High while facing white protesters, September 3, 1957. (Bettmann/Getty Images). [Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/hidden-trailblazers-women-made-history-gallery-1.2994475?pmSlide=1.2803470]

The segregationist protesters were holding up signs against “racial mixing” and yelling racial slurs. Famous became their chant “Two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate!” For the next weeks, it remained impossible for the nine black students to attend Central High.

Involving the Courts and the National Government

After NAACP lawyers sued the Arkansas government for not complying with the Supreme Court decision, on September 20th, a federal court urged Governor Faubus to allow the integration. Faubus finally complied by removing the National Guard on September 24th. The Little Rock Nine entered the school on the same day through a side entrance, but when the protesters learned about this, the mob turned violent. The black students were sent home by noon as the school was concerned the protests could spiral out of control.

With growing national coverage of the violent mob, President Eisenhower reluctantly agreed to send federal troops to Little Rock to assure the decision of the federal courts to integrate the high schools were carried out.  On September 25th, the students finally entered the school through the front entrance, escorted by army personal. Media from all over the world covered the continuing verbal assault on the students and the physical assault on some reporters covering the event.

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Little Rock Nine leaving Central High with an army escort, 1957. [Source: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/9064b4e7-566a-827d-e040-e00a180628a3].

The photo above shows how the students were escorted out of the school by the U.S. army in order to protect them from the protesters. The army division stayed in Little Rock until the end of the academic school year.

Remaining Segregationist Resistance

But even after the protests in front of the school ended, the black students of Central High struggled with verbal and physical harassment by white classmates. One of the Little Rock Nine was eventually expelled for fighting back against her white abusers. In fall of 1958, Little Rock high schools were closed for a year as the result of a referendum in which the majority of citizens chose to vote against further integration.

Protests against desegregation continued over the next years, one example of a Little Rock protest in front of the state capitol in 1959 can be seen below. As can be seen on the posters, the segregationists tried to frame integration as anti-American.

Little_Rock_integration_protest

Rally at Arkansas State Capitol, August 1959. (John Bledsoe). [Source: https://www.loc.gov/item/2009632339/].

The legacy of the Little Rock High School Crisis is still being debated by historians, as it can be seen as a victory for both the NAACP and integrationists, but also for Governor Faubus and the segregationist cause, as the schools were closed shortly after the integration. One can definitely say that at the time of the Little Rock Nine, the long fight for equality for African Americans had only begun.

Decades after the incidents, one of the Little Rock Nine concluded: “The thing integration demonstrated is that, challenge the system, it doesn’t stop with schools. It extends to include other arrangements and relationships. Once you open Pandora’s box the genie out, you can’t put the genie back in.”

Author: Janette Yamanian

References:

  • Anderson, Karen. Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Akansaw.com. “The History behind the Little Rock Nine” Accessed May 27th, 2017. https://www.arkansas.com/attractions/central-high/
  • Freyer, Tony A. “The Little Rock Crisis Reconsidered.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 56 (1997), 361-370.
  • Kirk, John A. “The 1957 Little Rock Crisis: A Fiftieth Anniversary Retrospective.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 66 (2007), 91-111.
  • Lewis, Richard, ed. Race, Politics, and Memory. A Documentary History of the Little Rock School Crisis. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007.
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