OTD in History… September 4–24, 1957, Little Rock desegregation crisis at Central High School
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history September 4–5, 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus orders the National Guard to prevent nine African Americans students known as the Little Rock Nine from enrolling and starting school at Little Rock Central High School leading to the Little Rock Crisis. In an attempt to hold on to racist policies, the governor circumvented a court order requiring the school to be desegregated. Southern schools were slow to desegregate their school after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which ended the segregation of schools deeming it unconstitutional.
After 20 days on September 24, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in United States Army paratroopers to enforce the school’s integration and to protect the students as they started school and he nationalized Arkansas National guard taking it out of Faubus’ control. The incident represented just how divisive desegregation was in the South, who since the Civil War had enforced Jim Crow laws to keep former slaves in a segregated and inferior position denying them rights enjoyed by white Americans. Despite the Federal government’s reluctance to interfere in the Southern states, Eisenhower’s action in Little Rock would begin a process of presidential intervention in the Civil Rights struggle and attempt to solve finally the segregation problem that tainted the United States since Reconstruction ended nearly a hundred years before.
The Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 argued that Linda Brown was not getting an equal education in her segregated all-black elementary school as she would if she attended the white school. Thurgood Marshall the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lawyer presented the case in front of the Supreme Court. The purpose was to overturn the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson that ruled “separate but equal” facilities adhere to the 14th Amendment guarantees. Particularly in the South, the case was used as a basis of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and inferior facilities and schools for the African American population. The legal basis ended when the Supreme Court with the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled on May 17, 1954, that Plessy v. Ferguson unconstitutional. In 1955, the Brown II ruling ordered schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
On May 24, 1955, the Little Rock School Board approved a proposal by Virgil Blossom, the Superintendent of Schools to begin integrating their school system in the school year beginning in 1957. The board, however, altered the plan, by intentionally maintaining segregation at the city’s high schools, Horace Mann and Central. The NAACP filed a lawsuit in protest, and Federal District Court ordered Central High School be desegregated in 1957. At the start of the school year on September 4, 400 segregationists protested and blocked nine African American teenagers, the Little Rock Nine, who had been chosen by the school board from entering the school. The Little Rock Nine were Ernest Green (b. 1941), Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), Jefferson Thomas (1942–2010), Terrence Roberts (b. 1941), Carlotta Walls LaNier (b. 1942), Minnijean Brown (b. 1941), Gloria Ray Karlmark (b. 1942), Thelma Mothershed (b. 1940), and Melba Pattillo Beals (b. 1941). Governor Faubus called the National Guard to support the segregationists and prevent the integration.
The school board issued a condemnation on September 9, opposing the governor sending in troops to prevent integration, and announced a “citywide prayer service on September 12.” President Eisenhower wanted to stay out of the situation but the images were a diplomatic nightmare. The president summoned Faubus to a meeting in Newport, Rhode Island, where Eisenhower was vacationing. Eisenhower warned Faubus about defying the Federal Court order and believed that Faubus would leave the National Guard in place to prevent riots and protect the students as they enrolled.
Instead, Faubus countered the president withdrew the troops. When the students attempted to enroll, there was a riot; Faubus did nothing to stop it, Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann asked President Eisenhower for help. Eisenhower put the National Guard under Federal control and sent 1,000 U.S. Army paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to quell the protest and ensure the safety of the students. By the end of September, the Little Rock Nine students started classes but faced harassment and abuse from the white students the whole school year. One of the students, Ernest Green made history when he graduated at the end of the school, becoming the first African American to graduate from Central High School.
Faubus would not let Eisenhower have the last word, acting as the head of the Little Rock School District he decided to fight the Federal District Court order to desegregate Little Rock’s high schools. Faubus and the distinct wanted a delay until January 1961, in the case Cooper v. Aaron the court refused in August 1958 to grant an extension. In retaliation, Faubus and the Arkansas State Legislature enacted laws that would close down the district schools rather than integrate them, which Faubus signed on September 15.
The law required a referendum with the city voting on the law within a month of him signing the bill. Faubus campaigned with a stirring speech promising to lease out the public schools top private school, keeping them segregated, the speech helped win Faubus the referendum. Little Rock’s public schools were closed, with a lost year school year, while the private schools were denied opening, teachers were still required to come to work each day. In May 1959, three segregationist board members were fired and the school year started earlier in August 1959. Despite integration, African American students continued to face discrimination and harassment at the schools.
Historian David A. Nichols in his book A Matter of Justice, Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution notes that unlike other historians’ opinion, Eisenhower’s actions at Little Rock represented a broader attempt at Civil Rights rather than ambivalence. Nichols writes, When “President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a federal court order for school desegregation,” it “was an extraordinary action under any circumstances, but century later, a president sending the army into an American city to enforce a court order would still generate huge controversy. Little Rock was the tip of the civil rights iceberg for Eisenhower.”
Nichols recounts, “Eisenhower desegregated the District of Columbia (including its schools), completed desegregation of the armed forces, appointed progressive federal judges at all levels (including Earl Warren and four other Supreme Court justices), proposed and secured passage of the first civil rights legislation in over eighty years, and took steps to enforce the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, most dramatically by his military intervention in Little Rock.” (Nichols, 13)
Eisenhower would sign two Civil Rights Acts during his time in office on September 9, 1957, in the middle of the Little Rock Crisis and then in 1960. Despite his attempts, the legislation was weak because of a Democratic Congress, with Southern Democrats blocking any real advances. It would take the assassination of Democratic president John F. Kennedy after pledging sweeping Civil Rights legislation and his successor President Lyndon Johnson, the former Senate Majority to press for legislation that would legally end segregation, granting African Americans equal rights with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then voting rights with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005.
Jacoway, Elizabeth. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2007.
Nichols, David A. A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.