The Little Rock Nine: Sixty Years Ago This Month, President Eisenhower Sent Federal Troops into Arkansas to Enforce the Desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School

By Roberts, Sam | New York Times Upfront, September 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Little Rock Nine: Sixty Years Ago This Month, President Eisenhower Sent Federal Troops into Arkansas to Enforce the Desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School


Roberts, Sam, New York Times Upfront


The first thing Elizabeth Eckford noticed as she walked toward Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was the throng of people waiting for her. It was the morning of Sept. 4, 1957, and Eckford, 15, was one of nine black students chosen to integrate all-white Central High. The entire group was supposed to meet up before heading to school, but Eckford hadn't gotten the message. She was alone.

As the crowd of angry whites shouted epithets and threatened to lynch her, she felt relieved at first when she saw the Arkansas National Guard surrounding the school. But as she approached, the guardsmen refused to allow her to pass. It was then that she realized the soldiers weren't there to protect her: They were there to prevent her and the eight other students from entering the school.

The "Little Rock Nine," as they became known, didn't make it inside that day. The drama played out for three weeks, ending only after President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to ensure that the black students made it safely through the school's front doors. The events, broadcast on national TV, helped light a fire under the civil rights movement three years after the Supreme Court had declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

"It took an incredible amount of bravery from those nine students to face what was real terrorism and mob violence," says Alvin Tillery, a professor of political science and African-American studies at Northwestern University in Illinois. "Elizabeth Eckford being threatened, harassed, and spat on, and her calm resistance became an iconic symbol of the civil rights movement."

Segregation & the Supreme Court

Seeds of the confrontation had been sown in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (see Timeline, p. 20). The justices unanimously ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. The Brown ruling overturned the "separate but equal" principle established by the Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Most Southern states defied the Brown ruling or took only token steps to comply. In Little Rock, the school board agreed to gradual desegregation, beginning in the fall of 1957 at Central High.

As the fall approached, segregationists in Little Rock were predicting that violence would erupt if integration took place. But a federal court ordered the school district to proceed. The school board selected nine black students from a pool of more than 100 volunteers.

On September 4, when Eckford and the eight other students tried to enter Central High for the first time, they were confronted by a mob of white hecklers.

"Are you scared?" a New York Times reporter asked one of them, 15-year-old Terrence Roberts, that day.

"Yes, I am," he replied. "I think the students would like me OK once I got in and they got to know me. "

But Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who sent in the state's National Guard troops, made sure it didn't happen that first day.

On September 20, a federal judge ordered Faubus to recall the troops. He complied, and three days later, Little Rock police escorted the nine students into the school through a side door. But rioting broke out among the more than 1,000 white protesters in front of the school, and police removed the black students after a few hours, fearing for their safety.

In a dramatic climax to the Little Rock crisis, President Eisenhower sent 1,200 troops from the Army's 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock on September 24 and placed all 10,000 Arkansas National Guardsmen under federal control. For the first time since Reconstruction, a president had ordered armed federal troops to the South to ensure that the civil rights of blacks were protected.

Eisenhower addressed the nation on TV and radio that night, saying he'd reluctantly intervened. …

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