Who were the Little Rock Nine? – History, Crisis & Major Facts

In the history of America’s Civil Rights movement, there have been several groups and leading figures that have stood out as game changers. The Little Rock Nine was one of them. Made up of nine African American teenage students, the group took the steps towards racial equality that changed U.S. history forever. The nine dared to resist segregation in American public schools and became a monumental part of the fight for equal opportunities in American education.

Below, World History Edu presents everything that you need to know about the Little Rock Nine.

U.S. Supreme Court bans segregation in public schools

In the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case, the U.S. Supreme Court, on May 17, 1954, had ruled that segregation in American public schools was unconstitutional. Regarded as one of the three Reconstruction Amendments, the Fourteenth Amendment (Amendment XIV) of the U.S. Constitution formed the basis of our nation’s highest court’s decision in 1954. The court was simply applying a number of the important clauses of Amendment XIV, especially the Citizenship Clause and Equal Protection Clause, when it made its decision to bring an end to racial segregation in public funded schools in the United States.

Plan for gradual integration in Little Rock

Tracy Blossom was a professional educator and the superintendent of Little Rock public schools in Arkansas during the Little Rock Central High school desegregation crisis of 1957.

As a result of the white southerners’ extreme segregationist views, Blossom felt that the Supreme Court’s ruling should have been delayed until a more suitable date. That notwithstanding, he led the Little Rock school board to start plans to integrate the schools in Little Rock. He proposed what became known as the Blossom Plan to serve as a prototype for the desegregation of schools in his district.

In September, 1954, Blossom met with the Little Rock chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the city school board to discuss the integration of four high schools, including Central High and Horace Mann. Although not completely pleased with Blossom’s plan, the NAACP was ready to work with the plan.

Owing to increasing resistance from advocates of segregation in public schools, Blossom was forced to come up with an altered plan that sought to reduce the impact of desegregation in Little Rock public schools. It was proposed that the integration will happen in stages. High school students would be integrated first, followed by junior high school students, and finally elementary school students.

The NAACP was taken aback when it learned that the altered plan aimed at establishing white majority schools in Little Rock school districts. Such a system completely flew against the whole point of ending racial segregation in American schools. Leaders of the NAACP took their grievances to the courts in February 1956.

Names of the Little Rock Nine

Little Rock Arkansas was known in history as an epicenter of deeply-rooted racism and segregation. The city gained national prominence as nine black students entered the all-white Central High School in September, 1957. The Little Rock Nine, as named by the media, came from an original number of two hundred eligible students who were reduced to thirty-seven through screening tests. Out of the thirty-seven, several applicants withdrew and only nine students were left. The nine teenagers who became known as the Little Rock Nine were Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown, Carlotta Walls, Melba Patillo, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, and Ernest Green.

Integration Crisis

Before the 1954 Supreme Court’s ruling against segregation in public schools, a number of states across America had enacted segregation laws mandating African American and white children to attend separate schools.

Resistance to the court’s ruling was so high that following year, it issued a second decision, ordering public schools to be desegregated “with all deliberate speed.” In response to this and the pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), school boards began a plan for the gradual integration of its schools.

Segregationists protest the desegregation of public schools

Little Rock Central High school was among the first to be integrated. The plan was however met with much resistance as pro-segregation groups, including the Capital Citizens Council and the Mothers’ League of Central High School, rose to protest the integration in Little Rock. Despite their efforts, the Little Rock Nine arrived for the first day at school at Central High on September 4, 1957. Before then, the teenagers had been taken through weeks of counselling sessions to prepare them towards possible hostile situations.

As expected, the Little Rock Nine were greeted by an angry mob made up of hundreds of white people who attacked Black residents and reporters, causing nationally publicized mayhem. Under the instructions of the Arkansas  Governor Orval Faubus, who had acted in defiance of the Supreme Court’s order, the Arkansas National Guard was summoned to block the entry of the nine black students into the school. The governor, who had buckled under pressure from pro-segregationist and the southern Democratic Party, justified his decision to deny the nine students entry because he believed that the African American students would breach the peace.

President Eisenhower’s Role

Then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was faced with a dilemma. He needed to uphold the Constitution and the decision of America’s highest court, but he also had to prevent a potentially bloody situation in Arkansas.

After receiving an appeal from Woodrow Wilson Mann, the mayor of Little Rock, for the need of federal troops in Little Rock, Eisenhower decided to act. He invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807 on September 24, which placed Arkansas National Guard under federal command.

President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine to school

The president ordered 1,200 members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock Central High. Their job was to escort the Little Rock Nine to school and ensure their security. The president made sure that the army division sent to Little Rock did not have its black soldiers, as he did not want to make the it look like a racial war.

Read More: Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Remarkable Achievements

Harassment & Tensions

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, is screamed at as she makes her way into Little Rock School in September 1957.

Several of the Nine had an uneventful first day at school. However, they went through terrifying periods of verbal and physical assaults that ranged from name calling to kicking in the course of the year.

Melba Pattillo suffered a series of beatings. At one time, she had acid thrown into her face.

In early 1958, Minnijean Brown was expelled for retaliating against the daily harassment.

A month before her graduation, a bomb exploded at the home of Carlotta Walls, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine. She later described the integration experience in an interview as “painful.”

Ernest Green became the first African American graduate of Central High. The rest of the Little Rock Nine either completed their high school education through correspondence or at other high schools across the country.

Later Years of the Little Rock Nine students

In spite of their struggles, several of the Little Rock Nine went to on have  distinguished careers.

  • After Minnijean Brown’s expulsion, she relocated to New York after being awarded a scholarship to New York’s New Lincoln School in Manhattan. She went on to become an activist and promoted various social reforms in such areas as education, peacemaking and social justice.
  • Melba Pattillo went on to become a journalist and educator.
  • Gloria Ray worked as a technical writer after graduating from the Illinois Institute of Technology and Illinois Technical College.
  • Jefferson Thomas became the first member of the Nine to die at the age of 67 in 2010. He had served in the army in Vietnam and also worked as an accountant for private businesses.
  • Ernest Green served as Assistant Secretary in the Department of Labor under U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
  • Eckford enlisted in the U.S. Army and later received her diploma in General Education Equivalency.

Read More: Jimmy Carter’s Major Accomplishments

Honors & Awards

In 1958, members of the Little Rock Nine were awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal, which is considered the highest honor of the organization.

Ex-U.S. president Bill Clinton, in November 1999, by honored each of the nine with a Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian honors of nation.

The group was also honored by Marquette University in late 2008 as they received the Pere Marquette Discovery Award, the university’s highest honor.

Importance of the Little Rock Nine

Image: Memorial at Arkansas State Capitol

  • The Little Rock Nine defied the status quo and championed the fight for racial equality in the American educational system. They showed immense courage and strength during such difficult times.
  • By demonstrating bravery in the face of heated opposition, they inspired many African Americans to fight for and defend their rights against social inequalities and injustices.

Did you know?

Two TV films, “Crisis at Central High” (1981) and “The Ernest Green Story” (1993), featured the events of the crisis.

In 1999, the group came together to set up a scholarship program, which as of 2020, has funded the education of tens of university students.

For his coverage of the Little Rock School crisis, American journalist Harry Ashmore received the 1958 Pulitzer Prize. The journalist was able to expose how Faubus orchestrated a crisis just so he could appease his supporters and racist elements in Little Rock.

Educators and a good number of officials from the Little Rock School District were not in favor of Governor Faubus’ deployment of the national guard to the school.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower worked very hard to de-escalate the situation by speaking with Faubus on so many occasions. The president cautioned Faubus to abide by the ruling of the Supreme Court.

On December 9, 2008, the Little Rock Nine received an invitation to attend then President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.

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