Impacting Change: Students in the Civil Rights Movement

By McIntire, Richard J. | Diversity Employers, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Impacting Change: Students in the Civil Rights Movement


McIntire, Richard J., Diversity Employers


From its very start, young people and students have played an integral part in the American civil rights and social justice movement. Arguably, the horrific kidnapping and murder of 14-year old Emmett Till at the hands of an angry white mob in Money, Miss. in 1955, was one of the catalysts that motivated thousands to fight for change.

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The names of those who contributed to that massive social change in our nation's history are countless. The icons of the movement are well known. Yet there are many others, students at the time, whose names and stories may not be as familiar but whose courage looms just as large.

Although the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas outlawed segregation in schools, many racist school systems defied the law by intimidating Black students.

After attending Selma University and graduating from Miles College in Birmingham, Ala. in 1956, Autherine Lucy applied for admission to graduate school at the University of Alabama--a segregated, all-white institution. Though the Brown decision outlawed school segregation in theory, she knew she'd face implacable opposition. She approached the NAACP for assistance. Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley and Arthur Shores volunteered to be her attorneys. By June 1955, the NAACP lawyers won a court order prohibiting the university from denying her--or anyone else--admission based on race. In February 1956, Lucy enrolled in the graduate School of Library Science at the main campus in Tuscaloosa.

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A mob of students, townsmen and Ku Klux Klansmen from across the South attempted to keep her from attending class. A police escort was required to protect her from their violence. The university administration suspended Lucy, but not the White students who attacked her. When the NAACP filed a lawsuit charging the university with contempt of court and acting in support of the mob, Lucy was expelled. The federal government failed to enforce either the Brown decision or the court order against the university.

In 1988--32 years later--the university finally admitted it was wrong and overturned her expulsion. Lucy and her daughter Grazia both enrolled and in 1992 were awarded degrees.

Under the guidance of then Arkansas NAACP President Daisy Bates, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls would become known as the Little Rock Nine. They were the first Black teenagers to attend all-White Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in September 1957.

Things grew ugly and frightening right away. On the first day of school, the governor ordered the state's National Guard to block the Black students from entering the school. After the local police chief conceded he could not protect the nine, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent 1,000 soldiers of the 101st Airborne to carry out the orders of the federal courts and protect the children from the racist violence.

Inside Central High, day after day, the Little Rock Nine endured unspeakable hardship and abuse from the white students--beatings, shoving, jeers, insults, and constant humiliation. Their lockers are destroyed and fireballs thrown at them in the rest-rooms. A lighted stick of dynamite was hurled at Melba Pattillo, she was stabbed and acid was sprayed in her eyes. Only the quick action of a soldier from the 101st saved her from being permanently blinded.

Parents of the Little Rock Nine were pressured to withdraw their children from the school. They are threatened with death. Four lose their jobs. But they stand behind their children and none back down.

During the following years, throughout the South thousands of other Black children endured similar humiliation, vicious abuse, and cruel injustice when they integrated all-white schools. …

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