America in Ferment: The Tumultuous 1960s
|Digital History ID 3322|
The first major confrontation between states' rights and the Supreme Court's school integration decision occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the summer of 1957. Eighteen African American students were chosen to integrate Little Rock's Central High School to comply with the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. By Labor Day, only nine were still willing to serve as foot soldiers in freedom's march.
Arkansas seemed an unlikely place for a confrontation over civil rights. Its largest newspapers were generally supportive of desegregation, and several Arkansas cities had already integrated their public schools. The public library and bus system were desegregated, earning Little Rock a reputation as a progressive town. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus owed his re-election in 1956 to black voters.
Ironically, Faubus, responding to polls that showed 85 percent of the state's residents opposed school integration, tried to block desegregation by directing the Arkansas National Guard to keep the nine teenagers from enrolling in the all-white Central High. He said that "blood would run in the streets" if the Central High School was integrated.
For three weeks, the National Guard, under orders from the governor, prevented the nine students from entering the school. President Eisenhower privately pressed Faubus to comply with the court order. When Faubus refused to comply, the president responded by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and sending in 1,000 paratroopers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into the school.
An angry white mob hurled racial epithets. Inside the school, there were still separate restrooms and drinking fountains for black and white students. During the school year, the African American students were ostracized and physically harassed. They were shoved against lockers, tripped down stairways, and taunted by their classmates. Not all the African American students were able to turn the other cheek. One was expelled for dumping a bowl of soup on a classmate's head. The remaining students were greeted the next day with a sign that said, "One down, eight more to go."
Only one of the Little Rock nine graduated from Central High. In the fall of 1958, Governor Faubus shut the public high schools down to prevent further integration. The schools did not re-open for a year.
Daisy Bates, the president of Arkansas's NAACP, spearheaded the drive to integrate Central High. Before and after school, she would have the students gather at her home for prayer and counsel. During the integration struggle, rocks were thrown through her windows and a burning cross was placed on her roof. In 1963, Bates, whose mother had been murdered by three white men in an attempted rape, was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington.
Of the Little Rock nine, one student became assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Carter. The others became an accountant, an investment banker, a journalist, a social worker, a psychologist, a teacher, a real estate broker, and a writer. Only one remained in Little Rock.
Nearly half a century after the Little Rock nine entered Central High School, the city's school system still struggles with integration. Today, almost 50 percent of the white students who live in the district do not enroll in the public school system. Despite busing 14,000 of its 25,000 students to achieve racial balance, 18 of the district's 49 schools have at least 75 percent black enrollment.