In 1954, the US Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision in the famous case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In its fourteen pages of obiter dictum, the judgment stated that all state laws in the US that established and maintained segregated schooling systems were unconstitutional and a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
All nine of the Supreme Court Justices were in favor of the decision and it was viewed as a reflection of the frenzied conversations about race that were engulfing the country at the time. If the Declaration of Independence was stating that “All men are created equal”, these justices felt that there should be a corresponding reflection of this sentiment in the nation’s laws.
This judgment had been long coming. 58 years before it was delivered, there had been the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896 in which the Supreme Court ratified state sponsored school segregation. For years, almost all conversations about racial relations revolved around the segregation blacks experienced in schools and other public institutions. As expected, the Brown’s judgment quickly became a fighting tool in the hands of America’s civil rights activists. While nobody expected the racial profiling of blacks to suddenly come to an end, it was important to utilize the opportunity for what it was worth. The NAACP wasted no time in applying that black students all through the South be enrolled in previously all-white schools.
In Little Rock, capital city of Arkansas, it took three years after the Supreme Court decision was delivered for nine black students to be offered admission into Central High. It was a school with 1,900 students on its roaster, all of whom were white. Later to be known as the Little Rock Nine, these nine students walked into their classrooms for the first time on the 25th of September, 1957 surrounded by federal troops escorts sent in by President Dwight Eisenhower. All around them was a crowd of angry white people of all ages, yelling, spitting and throwing everything within sight at the students.
25th of September was actually the second time the nine students were attempting to climb the steps of Central High School. On the first day of term, and the day the students were originally expected to begin school, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent in 270 Arkansas National Guard soldiers to block the school’s entrance and prevent the students from gaining access.
It was a step in line with the Governor’s open support for the segregationists in his state and his willingness to defy the Supreme Court ruling ordering desegregation. For these students – Melba Pattillo, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray and Thelma Mothershed – the protection provided on their first day of school was relatively effective. But there was no way it was expected to last nor did anyone kid themselves that the heavy presence of security on that day was enough to stop even more heightened abuse targeted at the nine students.
The image is a haunting one – young students barely old enough to understand the full ramifications of racism in their country, being shepherded into a building where they were meant to undergo the mental activity of academic study. The black helmets of the soldiers matching the equally black metal of their guns as they stood as the only thing separating 15-year olds from a blood-thirsty mob of over a thousand white folk chanting racist slurs like “Go back to Africa.”
One of the more famous photographs from that day is one showing Eckford notebook in hand and walking calmly alone towards the school’s entrance as a crowd of screaming people surrounds her. This was the case because her family had no telephone and she could not be reached by the other eight on the plans they had made to enter the school’s building together. All the kids wanted at the time was an education, a privilege surely nestling at the bottom of the list of opportunities a nation like the US was willing and able to provide those it called its citizens. In a country touted as the home of the brave, this brand of quiet courage was being confronted with a most vehement aggressor.
The troops sent in by the President remained for the rest of the school year but there were some things they were unable to prevent. The nine students continued to receive abuse from their fellow students. They were spat on, beaten and traumatized in the cruelest ways. To ensure that they couldn’t corroborate each other’s claims on these abuses, they were all kept in separate classes. At some point, Minnijean Brown Trickey was suspended and later expelled for retaliating in response to harassment by some students. Gloria Ray got pushed down school stairs while Pattillo suffered an acid attack to the face.
In the end, only Ernest Green graduated from Central High on May 25th, 1958, in the process becoming the first African-American to gain a diploma from the school. The others received their diplomas from other high schools or correspondence programs. Green went on to work for the Department of Labor under President Jimmy Carter serving as Carter’s assistant secretary. In varying other capacities, the rest of the Little Rock Nine have had successful professional careers while retaining an important place in the America’s civil rights history.
Last year marked the 60th anniversary of their brave entrance into Central High in 1957 and in commemoration, the Little Rock community honored eight of the nine students for their role in creating a huge mark in the civil rights movement. Events were held highlighting the significance of their bravery with speeches from former US President Bill Clinton who coincidentally also served as Governor of Arkansas and from the eight living students.
Unfortunately, Jefferson Thomas passed away in 2010 having suffered from pancreatic cancer.