The Little Rock Nine were a group of African American high school students at the heart of one of the defining events of the civil rights movement. They were the first black students to be enrolled at Little Rock Central High following the landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court ruling that declared school segregation unconstitutional. Despite legal appeals from the NAACP who fought for immediate segregation in Arkansas schools, it was decided to make it a gradual process, beginning with just the nine volunteers being accepted into Central High.
Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals were the students chosen to enrol. It would never be an easy transition for the students, but little did they know their ground-breaking action would result in one of the biggest clashes between state and federal authorities in American history.
As the students attempted to register on their first day of school on September 4, 1957, hundreds of people gathered outside to protest. Ahead of their arrival, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had made the decision to defy the Brown ruling, and called in the National Guard to surround the school to prevent the nine entering the building and calm the angry crowds outside. He had vowed: "no school district will be forced to mix the races as long as I am governor of Arkansas." Later that month, the students tried to enter the school again, and although this time were able to attend some classes, were so badly threatened by mobs that they were escorted out for their own safety.
The federal authorities had been keeping an eye on the situation in Little Rock and despite initial reticence, the situation finally led to the intervention of President Dwight D Eisenhower, who called the mob behaviour "disgraceful." On the president's orders on September 27 1957, 1000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escorted the Little Rock Nine to school and remained there for a number of weeks. After that, the Arkansas National Guard continued the vigil.
The Encyclopaedia of African American Education described the atmosphere at Little Rock Central High during this time as "warlike." The Nine "faced almost continual harassment from their white counterparts at school, including taunts and insults as well as being pushed and hit. Some had acid thrown into their eyes; others had water, eggs and soup dumped on their heads." The majority of white students and teachers had little sympathy. In 1958, Minnijean Brown was expelled for retaliating against harassment. That same year, Earnest Green became the first black student to graduate from Little Rock Central High. Martin Luther King Jr. attended the ceremony.
Ernest Green later recalled making his decision to enrol at Central High because he knew white schools had much better facilities than the all-black schools in the area, and he and the other students "wanted to change things for ourselves and our families." It was a brave decision that would see their relatives and supporters also forced to suffer for their beliefs. Some of the Nine's parents were fired from their jobs; NAACP activist Daisy Bates, owner of the Arkansas State Press and one of the students' most vocal supporters, was eventually forced to shut down her title after the withdrawal of white advertisers.
For the remaining seven students, the struggle continued. Governor Faubus eventually closed all of the town's high schools rather than see them become segregated, in what became known as "the lost year." Central High reopened in 1960. By that time only Carlotta Walls and Jefferson Thomas returned and graduated. All of the Nine went on to receive college education.
In 1958, the Little Rock Nine and Daisy Bates were awarded the NAACP's Spingarn medal, for their "pioneer role in upholding the basic ideals of American democracy in the face of continuing harassment and constant threats of bodily injury." Marking the 40th anniversary of the event in 1997, President Bill Clinton – himself a former Governor of Arkansas and an old friend of student Ernest Green – said of the Little Rock Nine: "Every American owes them a deep debt of gratitude. They taught us a valuable lesson. Segregation not only deprived African Americans of the right to attend public educational institutions in Arkansas, but it also deprived white students of the opportunity to benefit from the diversity upon which our country has thrived."