In 1957, nine young black students, in one tiny high school, in one tiny city, in one tiny state became made the first major leap forward in true equality.
Until 1954, white students attended their own school, while black students had their own school. Following that year’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” state school systems officially began the process of forced integration. One of those schools was Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas which developed a phased integration plan that was to begin in September, 1957.
As the time approached for the plan’s implementation, tensions rose and segregationists planned protests and violence was threatened. On September 4, 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, a staunch segregationist, refused to allow the students entry into the school, going so far as to use the National Guard to block the student’s entry.
Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower acted swiftly; mobilizing the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army and federalizing every member of the Arkansas Guard. By the end of the month, these nine black children, surrounded by sea of white men in khaki army uniforms marched up the long entry steps and disappeared into the school.
The courage these nine kids showed on that day were just the start. They knew they would be challenged each day by the students who, influenced by their segregationist parents, spit racist insults and their venomous opinions at each of these kids, each day. The teachers offered little support or protection against their misguided classmates, and some went so far as to offer their own closed-minded opinion.
It’s hard to imagine what that school year was like for these nine, ordinary students who, thanks to their courage became extraordinary.
The National Park office across the street offers an interactive museum, and tours. Unfortunately, we arrived immediately after a tour had just started, and the next tour was several hours later (lunch time at the still operating school).
One of the best parts of this trip has been actually standing in the spaces where history happened. It’s great to share sidewalks with the so many before us whose existence and perseverance have helped to guide our history.