In the early 1900s, “race” was the lens through which many Americans viewed the world. It was a lens that shaped ideas about who belonged and who did not. These were years when only a few people resisted Jim Crow laws. That resistance took many forms. Some worked quietly to change attitudes and values. Others openly expressed their outrage, while a few advocated violence.
During those years, Americans who opposed segregation concentrated on providing young African Americans with the skills necessary to openly challenge discrimination. They founded a variety of vocational schools, colleges, and universities open to young people of all races and ethnicities. In time, a number of lawyers trained at these institutions began to chip away at segregation in court. With the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), they attacked Jim Crow laws– particularly laws that affected educational opportunities–case by case. They began with state-supported universities and then focused their attention on segregation in the nation’s public schools. On May 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in their favor. The justices decided that separate schools for black and white children were not and never could be equal.
Marian Wright Edelman recalls,
“My father and I waited anxiously for the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. We talked about it and what it would mean for my future and for the future of millions of other black children. He died the week before Brown was decided. But I and other children lucky enough to have caring and courageous parents and other role models were able, in later years, to walk through the new and heavy doors that Brown slowly and painfully opened–doors that some are trying to close again today.”1
The choices made by ordinary people–young and old, black and white– determined how quickly and easily those doors would open. In a few communities, doors opened with little debate. In others, even the possibility of limited integration aroused old hatreds and gave new life to old myths and misinformation about race.
In the fall of 1957, those who favored segregation and those who opposed it were riveted to their TV sets, as they watched a crisis unfold in Little Rock, Arkansas. Journalist David Halberstam described it as “the first all-out confrontation between the force of the law and the force of the mob, played out with television cameras whirring away in black and white for a nation that was by now largely wired.”2 After watching the confrontation on television, Doris Kearns Goodwin, then a high school student in New York, wrote a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower urging him to intervene. Goodwin recalls:
Aside from the death of [actor] James Dean and the struggle to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn, no public event had so fully engaged my private emotions. To challenge the president of the country, to berate angrily a governor I had never heard of from a place I did not know, was for me an immense expansion of political consciousness. It was a turning point or, at least, the start of a turning point.3
Yet as late as the summer of 1957, few people expected Little Rock to become the center of a crisis over integration. Hardly anyone there protested in 1955 when the school board announced a plan to integrate one high school beginning in the fall of 1957. And there was no outcry when school officials approved 17 African American students from over 200 applicants for enrollment at Central High, one of three all-white high schools in the city.
As fall neared, however, resistance to integration became more vocal in Little Rock and elsewhere. A number of African American students responded by withdrawing their applications. By the time school opened, only nine were prepared to attend Central High School–Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls. Despite the talk on TV, over the radio, and in the newspapers, they did not believe that integration would lead to violence in Little Rock. Ernest Green recalls:
There hadn’t been any trouble expected, given the fact that there had been other schools in Arkansas that had been integrated–Fort Smith, Arkansas, and some others. The buses in Little Rock had been desegregated without any problem. The library was integrated, the medical school, and the law school at the University had admitted some blacks. So there was an expectation that there would be minimal problems, but nothing major that would put Little Rock on the map. The first inclination that I had of it was the night before we were to go to school, the Labor Day Monday night. [Governor] Orval Faubus came on TV and indicated that he was calling out the [Arkansas] National Guard to prevent our entrance into Central because of what he thought were threats to our lives. He was doing it for our own “protection.” Even at that time that was his line. He said that the troops would be out in front of the school and they would bar our entrance to Central–for our protection as well as for the protection and tranquility of the city.4
Tuesday morning, school officials asked the “Little Rock Nine” to stay home, while they sought guidance from U.S. District Judge Ronald N. Davies. He ordered integration to proceed as planned. The nine black students were told to report to Central High the next morning. Fearful for their safety, Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas NAACP, suggested that they come to school as a group. She asked white and black religious leaders to accompany them.
Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford knew nothing of the plan. In her haste, Daisy Bates forgot to get word to her. So early Wednesday morning, Eckford set off for school, alone.
When she reached Central High, she found herself surrounded by an angry crowd. As they screamed and threatened, she tried to enter the building only to be turned away by soldiers armed with bayonets. Unsure what to do and terrified by the mob, Eckford quickly headed for a bus stop even as the crowd continued to spit and scream, taunt and jeer. She later said of her ordeal, “I remember this tremendous feeling of being alone, and I didn’t know how I was going to get out of there. I didn’t know whether I would be injured. There was this deafening roar. I could hear individual voices, but I was not conscious of numbers. I was conscious of being alone.”
A few minutes later, as a second black student, Terrence Roberts, approached the school, the soldiers formed a human fence to keep him out. Although the crowd taunted Roberts, it was Eckford who bore the brunt of their anger. As she sat on a bench with tears streaming down her face, Benjamin Fine of The New York Times tried to comfort her. Then a white woman, Grace Lorch, suddenly confronted the mob. Fine reported:
“She’s scared,” Mrs. Lorch said. “She’s just a little girl.” She appealed to the men and women around her.
“Why don’t you calm down?” she asked. “I’m not here to fight with you. Six months from now you’ll be ashamed at what you’re doing.”
“Go home, you’re just one of them,” Mrs. Lorch was told.
She escorted the Negro student to the other side of the street, but the crowd followed.
“Won’t somebody please call a taxi?” she pleaded. She was met with hoot calls and jeers.
Finally, after being jostled by the crowd, she worked her way to the street corner, and the two boarded a bus.
Seven other Negro students tried to get into the school. They came together, accompanied by four white ministers. Dunbar Ogden, president of the Greater Little Rock Ministerial Association, acted as spokesman for the group.
“Sorry, we cannot admit Negro students,” the officers of the militia told them.
The crowd began to disperse slowly. Many of the students who had waited outside the school building to see whether the Negroes would enter, started to go into school. They had said that if the Negroes went in, they would go out.5
For 17 days, the Arkansas National Guard kept the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High, but did nothing to disperse the crowd of angry whites that gathered outside the building. Perlesta Hollingsworth, an African American who lived near Central High, told a reporter many years later, “The shocking thing to me in 1957 was the number of whites who didn’t participate in the aggression, who wouldn’t do anything but look. Neighbors would express dismay, but wouldn’t do anything, wouldn’t speak out against it, would go ahead and close their doors to it.”6
Marcia Webb was among those whites. She was a student at Central High at the time and a bystander the day the mob harassed Elizabeth Eckford. She was also a witness to the crowds that surrounded the school in the days that followed. As an adult, she reflected on the choices she made then:
The things that I thought about when I was in high school were...the things that most kids did in the ‘50s...the football team. . . dances....I think it was a white person’s world–probably a white man’s world. Most of the blacks you had any contact with in 1957 were your household workers, sanitation department helpers, and that would be the only contact you would have. But I remember the picture in the newspaper of Elizabeth Eckford with the jeering white faces behind her. And at that moment I thought, Marcie, you were there and you never once thought about what was going on with Elizabeth Eckford. You were glad there weren’t any violent demonstrations, you were glad no one was hurt physically. But then I realized what hurt can come from words, from silence even, from just being ignored. And when I think about it now I think about it with regret. I’m sorry to say now looking back that what was happening didn’t have more significance and I didn’t take more of an active role. But I was interested in the things that most kids are.
On Friday, September 20, Judge Davies ruled that the state could not continue to block integration. Governor Faubus responded to the court order by withdrawing the Arkansas National Guard.
The following Monday, about one hundred Little Rock police officers placed wooden barricades around Central High as more than a thousand angry white men and women from Arkansas and surrounding states gathered in front of the building. To avoid the mob, the African American students entered the school through a side door. After learning the students were in the building, the crowd went on a rampage. By midmorning, the mob had attacked both black and white journalists, broken windows and doors in the school, and come close to capturing the Little Rock Nine. The police had to smuggle them out of the school for their own safety. Melba Pattillo later said of that day:
The first time, the first day I was able to enter Central High School, what I felt inside was stark raving fear–terrible, wrenching, awful fear....There are no words for how I felt inside. I had known no pain like that because I did not know what I had done wrong. You see, when you’re fifteen years old and someone’s going to hit you or hurt you, you want to know what you did wrong. Although I knew the differences between black and white, I didn’t know the penalties one paid for being black at that time.
The next day, President Dwight Eisenhower, outraged by the violence, ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. On September 25, American soldiers not only dispersed the mob but also escorted the Little Rock Nine to school. This time, Melba Pattillo recalls, “I went in not through the side doors, but up the front stairs, and there was a feeling of pride and hope that yes, this is the United States; yes, there is a reason I salute the flag; and it’s going to be okay.”
Eisenhower’s decision surprised many Americans. He did not favor integration. Born in 1890, he grew up in a segregated society and served for more than 30 years in a segregated army. Not long after the Brown decision, he remarked, “You can’t change people’s hearts merely by laws.” He also told reporters that he could not imagine a situation in which he would use federal troops to enforce integration. Yet after watching events in Little Rock, he ordered federal troops to the city to enforce the law. He told the American people: “Our personal opinions about the [Brown] decision have no bearing on the matter of enforcement....Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.”7
The editors of the New York Amsterdam News, a newspaper geared toward the African American community, said of the President’s decision:
It is not too difficult for a man to stand up and fight for a cause with which he himself believes to be right. But it is quite another thing for a man to stand up and fight for a cause with which he himself does not agree but which he feels it is his duty to uphold. President Eisenhower is a battle-scarred veteran of many a campaign who has been hailed from one end of the world to the other. But we submit that his victory over himself at Little Rock was indeed his finest hour.8
In the weeks that followed, the 101st Airborne restored order in the streets. But neither the soldiers nor school officials had much effect on the small but determined group of white students who insulted, humiliated, and physically threatened the Little Rock Nine day after day. Still, all but one of the students made it through the year. And in May, Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Central High. Singer Paul Robeson was one of many Americans who followed the crisis in Little Rock. In his autobiography, he says of Green and the other eight African American students:
Dear children of Little Rock–you and your parents and the Negro people of your community have lifted our hearts and renewed our resolve that full freedom shall now be ours....You are our children, but the peoples of the whole world rightly claim you, too. They have seen your faces, and the faces of those who hate you, and they are on your side. They see in you those qualities which parents everywhere want their children to have, and their best wishes...go out to you.
Yes, America–these are your children, too, you ought to be very proud of them. The American dream–the spirit of Jefferson and Lincoln, of Emerson and Twain–is given new life by the children of Little Rock. These children must ever be cherished, for they are not only the hope and the promise of my people: with them stands the destiny of democracy in America.9
Despite such praise at home and abroad, the crisis did not end with Green’s graduation. Reporter Joan I. Duffy of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, explains:
That summer, Faubus and the segregationists had pushed through the legislature a new law allowing school districts to close schools rather than integrate.
The Little Rock School Board voted to close the city’s four high schools for the 1958-1959 school year, sending thousands of families scrambling to find alternative education for their children....
No one knows how many students, unable to find an alternative school after the closure, dropped out and never came back. Newspaper accounts at the time described a rash of moving vans taking families out of Little Rock in search of schools. “Some 3,700 children of high school age have been affected by closings, 700 of them Negroes,” a United Press International dispatch reported. . . .
Several churches cobbled together classes and a private, allwhite school enrolled 917.
Closing the schools and the “purge” of 44 teachers by the school board for perceived support of integration ignited the outrage of Little Rock’s moderates. They were led by 76-yearold Adolphine Fletcher Terry, a civicly active society matron who had organized the city’s public library system. She organized an army of 2,000 women–all of them white. By spring of 1959, a recall movement ousted three segregationists from the school board and replaced them with moderates. The schools reopened in the fall of 1959.10
Rett Tucker, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, told Duffy, “Historians say that was the end of it, but you and I know we’ve been dealing with it ever since.”11
- 1 : Marian Wright Edelman, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 5.
- 2 : David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Villard Books, 1993), 678.
- 3 : Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wait Till Next Year (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997) 234.
- 4 : Ernest Green, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, edited by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer (New York: Bantam Books, 1990) 39.
- 5 : Benjamin Fine, “Arkansas Troops Bar Negro Pupils; Governor Defiant” New York Times, September 5, 1957.
- 6 : Joan Duffy, “A Reunion with History: Central High will Observe 1957’s Rite of Passage,” The Commercial Appeal, September 21, 1997.
- 7 : President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Mob Rule Cannot Be Allowed to Override the Decisions of Our Courts,” September 24, 1957, History Matters, George Mason University website, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6335/ (accessed on September 14, 2007).
- 8 : New York Amsterdam News, editorial, October 5, 1957.
- 9 : Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), 109-10.
- 10 : Joan Duffy, “A Reunion with History: Central High will Observe 1957’s Rite of Passage,” The Commercial Appeal, September 21, 1997.
- 11 : Ibid.