Today, history remembers the nine black students as the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine young black students who were used to judge the level of acceptance African Americans would receive in public schools after racial segregation had been declared unconstitutional.
The nine students were enrolled at an all-white public Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, barely weeks after the landmark May 17, 1954, Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unlawful. The decision to enroll the nine students in Little Rock Central High School was to test the Brown v. Board of Education, one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement that helped establish the precedent that “separate-but-equal” education and other services were not, in fact, equal at all.
Surprisingly, despite the court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation in public facilities – including schools was legal; the governor of Arkansas, Orval Eugene Faubus called the National Guard to block the school entrance and prevent black students from stepping foot in the school’s premises. The action prevented the nine black students from receiving classes on September 4, 1957 – the first day of classes at Little Rock Central.
The actions of Governor Faubus attracted protests from civil rights movement groups across the country. Later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent 1,200 members of the U.S. National Guard from Fort Campbell, Kentucky to provide security in the area and escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.
Before the Supreme Court’s decision, the Jim Crow laws which promoted mandatory segregation between blacks and whites were in full force, requiring among many things that African Americans and white children did not attend the same schools.
Many schools apart from Little Rock Central High School resisted the court’s ruling and restricted black students. The widespread resistance to the ruling led to the second decision in 1955, known as Brown II, it ordered that schools must adhere to the anti-segregation law “with all deliberate speed.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization, formed 1909 in the United States, was at the forefront in the fight against racial segregation in America’s educational system.
Daisy Gaston Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP and a co-publisher of the Arkansas State Press handpicked the nine students who registered to be the first African American students to attend the public high school.
Despite the resistance and malicious opposition, the nine black students, namely; Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls agreed to test-run the possible casualties that could follow the integration.
Daisy Bates and other top officials of the Arkansas NAACP scrutinized the students to determine that they possessed the strength of character and determination to withstand the resistance they would encounter.
The students were counseled by the NAACP and participated in intensive training on how to handle hostile situations and racial discrimination.
Bates personally drove eight of the students to school on the first day of resumption, September 4, 1957; Elizabeth Eckford however arrived alone because her family did not have a telephone and thus, they could not be contacted to inform them of the last-minute carpool plan.
According to a September 25, 1957, New York Times report, some of the black students had positive experiences while others faced violent attacks. It also stated that the Little Rock Nine were barred from participating in extracurricular activities to control the attacks.
In February 1958, Minnijean Brown was expelled from Central High School for retaliating against the attacks.
After continued protests and attacks on the black students, Governor Faubus closed all high schools in Little Rock and called for a public vote to determine whether blacks should be allowed in public schools. The pools ended 19,470 to 7,561 against integration, and the schools remained closed.
Eight of the Little Rock Nine, except Ernest Green, who remained in Central High, went on to complete their high school education via correspondence or at other schools across the country. Little Rock schools re-opened in August 1959, with unconfirmed reports claiming this was after authorities confirmed that the black junior students were not returning to the school. Ernest Green was the only senior student among the Little Rock Nine.
Many critics credit the Little Rock Nine for their role in the fight against racial discrimination in the American educational system and for inspiring many frontline freedom fighters across the country.
Renowned civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. attended graduation ceremony at Central High School in May 1958 to honour Ernest Green by watching him receive his diploma.
Green would later serve as assistant secretary of the federal Department of Labor under President Jimmy Carter.
President Bill Clinton appointed Minnijean Brown as deputy assistant secretary for workforce diversity from 1999 through 2001 in the Department of the Interior.
Melba Patillo worked as a reporter for the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC).
In 1999, President Clinton awarded each member of the group the Congressional Gold Medal. The Little Rock Nine also received personal invitations to attend the inauguration of President Barrack Obama in 2009.
Sadly, Jefferson Thomas succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 67 on September 5, 2010; he served in the Army in Vietnam, earned a business degree, and worked as an accountant for the Pentagon.
Don’t you think the Little Rock Nine deserve more credit than they have earned?