September 24, 1957:
On this day President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to prevent interference with school integration at Central High School.
The following day, a group of nine Black students had to be escorted by federal troops through an angry, racist white mob as they entered the doors of an all white highschool on their first full day of classes. They became known as The Little Rock Nine. This group—consisting of Melba Pattillo, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray, and Thelma Mothershed—became the centre of the struggle to desegregate public schools in the United States, especially in the South. The events that followed their enrollment in Little Rock Central High School provoked intense national debate about racial segregation and civil rights.
In 1954 the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were illegal. The case, Brown v. The Board of Education, has become iconic for Americans because it marked the formal beginning of the end of segregation.
But the gears of change grind slowly. It wasn’t until September 1957 when nine teens would become symbols, much like the landmark decision we know as Brown v. The Board of Education, of all that was in store for our nation in the years to come.
Warned by the Little Rock board of education not to attend the first day of school, the nine students arrived on the second day accompanied by a small interracial group of ministers. They encountered a large white mob in front of the school, who began shouting, throwing stones, and threatening to kill the students. In addition, about 270 soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard, sent by Arkansas Gov. Orval Eugene Faubus, blocked the school’s entrance. Faubus had declared his opposition to integration and his intention to defy a federal court order requiring desegregation.
On September 4, just 24 hours after a federal judge ordered the Little Rock Nine to begin attending Central High immediately, a belligerent mob, along with the National Guard, again prevented the teens from entering the school. Sixteen days later a federal judge ordered the National Guard removed. Once again on September 23, the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter the school. Though escorted by Little Rock police into a side door, another angry crowd gathered and tried to rush into Central High. Fearing for the lives of the nine students, school officials sent the teens home. They did, however, manage to attend classes for about three hours. Finally, Woodrow Wilson Mann, the mayor of Little Rock, asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce integration and protect the nine students. On September 24, the President ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army—without its black soldiers, who rejoined the division a month later—to Little Rock and federalized the entire 10,000-member Arkansas National Guard, taking it out of Faubus’s control. Escorted by the troops, the Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of classes on September 25.
This was not an easy undertaking for these heroic teens. The Little Rock Nine faced daily physical and verbal attacks from white students throughout their studies at Central High. One of the students, Minnijean Brown, fought back and was expelled. The remaining eight students, however, attended the school for the rest of the academic year. At the end of the year, in 1958, senior Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Little Rock Central High.
Several of the Little Rock Nine went on to distinguished careers.
Green served as assistant secretary of the federal Department of Labor under President Jimmy Carter. Brown worked as deputy assistant secretary for workforce diversity in the Department of the Interior under President Bill Clinton. Patillo worked as a reporter for NBC.
The group has been widely recognized for their significant role in the civil rights movement. In 1999, President Clinton awarded each member of the group the Congressional Gold Medal. The nine also all received personal invitations to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.
Jefferson Thomas became the first of the Little Rock Nine to die when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 67 on September 5, 2010. After graduating from Central High, Thomas served in the Army in Vietnam, earned a business degree and worked as an accountant for private companies and the Pentagon.