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Desegregation at Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 – South Platte Sentinel

Bill Benson
Bill Benson

Last time on these pages I discussed the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, from Topeka, Kansas. It attempted to reverse the premise that if schools were “equal” in quality, they could remain “segregated” between blacks and whites.

Chief Justice Earl Warren disagreed. On May 31, 1955, Earl Warren urged that Southern states must initiate desegregation plans in their schools “with all deliberate speed.”

‘Mass resistance’ broke out in the southern states. School boards closed their schools, abolished compulsory education laws, and diverted public funds to schools that had now become private.

The first test of desegregation occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, at Central High School, when the doors opened on September 4, the first day of school.

Daisy Gaston Bates – president of the Arkansas NAACP and co-publisher of the Arkansas State Press – recruited nine African-American students, three boys and six girls, who agreed to walk in and attend the all-white school that day. to go.

Their names were Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Thelma Mothershed, Gloria Ray, Melba Pattilo, Carlotta Watts, Ernest Green, Terrance Roberts and Jefferson Thomas.

On Tuesday, September 3, a federal judge named Ronald Davies ruled that desegregation would continue as planned the next day.

That evening, Daisy Gaston Bates called eight of the nine, except Elizabeth Eckford, and offered to drive them to the school together. Elizabeth was not told where to meet because her family did not have a telephone.

On Wednesday morning, September 4, a crowd of more than a thousand angry white adults and students gathered at the front door of the school and chanted, “Two, four, six, eight, we are not going to integrate!”

Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the state’s National Guard to the school “to prevent violence.” The soldiers stood upright, each holding a firearm with a bayonet.

The crowd went wild when they heard the news: “They’re in,” because the eight had sneaked into the school through a side door.

At that moment, fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford walked to the front door alone.

Students, adult men and women, all white, gathered around her, jeering her, ridiculing her, calling her names and hurling a stream of “racial insults, cruel insults and threats” of violence. A photographer’s photos of the girl’s courageous attempt made news worldwide.

She later described the day: “When I was able to stabilize my knees, I walked over to the security guard who had let the white students in. He didn’t move. As I tried to push past him, he raised his bayonet, and then the other guards came in and raised their bayonets.

‘They looked at me meanly and I was scared and didn’t know what to do. The crowd came to me.”

None of the nine went to school that day. They were all arrested and expelled.

A team of NAACP lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, objected to Governor Faber’s opposition in court, and the courts favored the students, but each of the nine refused to return.

On Monday, September 23, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent one hundred paratroopers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to enforce desegregation, and on September 25 the nine attended classes for the first time, but not without constant swearing and violence.

Governor Fabus declared, “This is a military occupation,” recalling bitter memories of the Reconstruction years, 1865-1877, when the Union Army oversaw local and state politics. Many in the southern states cried out, “This is a violation of our state’s rights!”

Of the nine, one graduated from Little Rock High School, Ernest Green, on May 25, 1958, the first African American to graduate from Central High.

Those nine broke the racial barrier. America’s destiny now included desegregation.

Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.

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