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The Little Rock Nine today

Little Rock Central High's school paper, The Tiger, during desegregation



Two, Four, Six, Eight: I Think You Best Desegregate!

Signs like this institutionalized segregation

Elizabeth Eckford boarded the bus that September morning in 1957 nervous but ready to start her first day of school. These were not just regular first-day-of-school jitters. Rather, Elizabeth was to be one of nine African-Americans to be the first to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. When she stepped off the bus, Elizabeth realized something was wrong. The other black students had received phone calls telling them to gather at the side of the school because there would be Arkansas National Guardsmen blocking the entrance. But Elizabeth hadn't received that phone call and showed up -- alone -- to angry mobs of segregationists and armed Guardsmen.


She was spat upon. She was cursed at. She was surrounded. Now, as an adult looking back on that day, she remembers, "I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob -- someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me." When she finally escaped the mob, Elizabeth found her friend Terrance Roberts, another of the black students starting school that morning. He urged her to walk home with him. But she decided it was best to take the bus. She was afraid to walk through her own neighborhood, afraid of what might happen to her.


Cool School Visit -- Signing is so much fun!

Let's take a look at the events in education that led up to the desegregation of the Little Rock Public School System. Until 1954, segregation was actually supported by the Supreme Court. In the 1929 case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Supreme Court declared that blacks and whites should have separate facilities. Public bathrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains are just a few examples of areas that contained signs that read, "Colored" or "Whites Only." Education was also made separate. But by no means was it equal.

Historically, schools have never had enough money. And if a budget can't support one school system, it would certainly have trouble supporting two separate ones. Black schools were over crowded and received fewer resources than white schools. African-American teachers were expected to instruct more students for smaller salaries. Even the buildings where classes were held were significantly different. Old wooden structures with broken furniture were the norm for black schools, while more modern buildings and furniture were provided for white schools. Separate, yes. Equal, definitely not.

The majestic looking Central High School

In 1954, a group of African-American parents in Topeka, Kansas, came together to challenge segregation in schools. They wanted their children to have equal access to resources and an equal education. In the historic Brown vs. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court overturned the "separate but equal" statute and mandated that all school systems begin integrating their schools.

The Little Rock Board of Education created a plan for gradual integration. It was to begin with one school, Central High School, and another school would be added each year thereafter. It was to begin in the fall of 1957. Even with this very slow plan, many opposed it, including Little Rock's governor, Oval Faubus. The night before school started, Governor Faubus called in the Arkansas Guardsmen because, he claimed, he wanted to keep the peace. But really Faubus was a segregationist, meaning that he didn't want integration to happen. When the courts ordered Faubus to remove the guards, he claimed they were needed because public opinion was so against integration that it was unsafe for the students. While it's true that many people were against integration, by placing the guards there, he gave fuel to their fire.

Governor Faubus worked here in the capitol to fight integration

It would be three weeks until the nine students, known as the Little Rock Nine, would return and try again. On September 23, they returned to Central High. Once inside the school, the nine were separated. They were spat upon, shoved and called names. Neither the teachers nor the administration did anything to stop it. Eventually the crowd outside mobbed the police. They shouted, "Two, four, six, eight: We ain't gonna integrate!" White girls went hysterical yelling to their classmates, "Come out of school, come on out, the niggers are in there." By noon, the nine students snuck out a side door and drove home with their heads ducked down in the hopes that no one would see them and that they wouldn't be attacked.

The gas station across the street where reporters tried to catch a glimpse of the Little Rock Nine

This time, President Eisenhower stepped in. After having no success in verbal agreements with Governor Faubus to integrate, Eisenhower sent paratroopers and helicopters to protect the students and to keep the peace. One thousand airborne troops were sent carrying M-1 rifles and bayonets. Helicopters hovered over the school. Surrounded by 30 paratroopers, the Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of school on September 25, 1957.

"Step by step we climbed upward -- where none of my people had ever before walked as a student. We stepped up to the front door of Central High School and crossed the threshold into that place where angry segregationist mobs had forbidden us to go."
-Melba Pattillo Beals, Warriors Don't Cry
Hoping for some racial harmony

Integration in Little Rock had officially begun. But it would be a long and torturous year for the Little Rock Nine and their families. Every day, the students endured being slammed into lockers, pushed down stairs, sprayed with ink and hit with flying firecrackers. They were repeatedly scalded in the school shower, kicked in the shins, and called "nigger." They weren't allowed to retaliate or they would be expelled. Teachers and administrators simply turned their backs.

Each day brought new terrors to the Little Rock Nine, but besides each other, there wasn't anyone they could tell. Even their families were kept in the dark about the horrid details of their daily lives. If the nine talked there was a chance that desegregation in Little Rock would be called off entirely. They depended on one another and didn't want to let each other down. They endured because they knew that if they didn't, if they decided to give up, segregation would continue. As former student Melba Beals writes in her book, integration would be swept up under the rug and left for their children to retrieve.

All the world was watching!

So they persevered. Come May, all but one of the Little Rock Nine had finished the school year. (One was punished for dumping chili on the head of her tormentors. Although the white students rarely received punishment for the daily torture they inflicted, this girl was expelled for defending herself.) Ernest Green, a senior, even graduated. They had won a small triumph at a great cost. Families received bomb threats; parents lost their jobs. Segregationists wanted the students dead and were willing to pay anyone to do it for them. Being regular teenagers, seeing friends and hanging out was a far away thought for these students. They gave up so much, but still the battle waged on.

At the end of the year, Governor Faubus was still trying to prevent desegregation. He tried to get a suspension to delay further integration. When that didn't work, he simply shut down the high schools. All high school students in Little Rock, black or white, had to find a new place to attend school! Now the Little Rock Nine endured anger from both the black and white communities. The impact was too much for some, and two of the families moved away for good. Others students were sent away from Little Rock to resume their studies in safer areas of the country, some living as far away from their families as California. All of these consequences because they stood up for a cause they believed in. In 1959, the federal court finally declared the Arkansas school closing unconstitutional. But this wasn't until a full year later: the damage had already been done. Only two of the original Little Rock Nine returned for their senior year.

Present-day students of Central High have a lot of spirit, but they're not sure what all the fuss is about

In 1997, Little Rock celebrated the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High. The nine students came together and walked through the doors of the high school one more time. Once again, large crowds gathered in front of Central High, but this time they were shouting cheers of support. So much has changed in 40 years. The Little Rock Public School District is now working to create a more racially balanced district. Fifty-five percent of the Central High student body is now African-American. When we visited a classroom and asked how it felt to be going to such a famous school, one boy shrugged and said, "To you it's interesting because you came here to study it. To us, it's no big deal." Of the adults I spoke with, they were proud of how far the community has come. They said past events used to be a reason for shame, but now they're proud of how they are working toward overcoming them.

What a difference 40 years makes

Elizabeth Eckford is the only member of the Little Rock Nine still living in Little Rock. While visiting the city, I was fortunate enough to meet her. When she spoke of the events of 1957, tears filled her eyes. She recalls, "At first I thought things would get better….Most days it would be difficult to get up and go back to that hell hole day after day." When our interview was over, I thanked Ms. Eckford for her time, and commented at how amazing I thought the nine of them were. She looked at me hard for a moment and said, "No, we were just ordinary people. I was an average student. I was very shy. If I can do it, anyone can do it. That's what I tell kids."


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Organizing the revolution and the future
Stephanie - Get on the bus, it's time for equality
Neda - The dream that inspired a nation
Stephanie - Riders on the wave of justice and equality