Friday, 15 February 2013


The US Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, on May 17, 1954. The decision declared all laws establishing segregated schools to be unconstitutional, and it called for the desegregation of all schools throughout the nation. After the decision, the NAACP attempted to register Black students in previously all-White schools in cities throughout the South.  

In Little Rock, the capital city of Arkansas, the Little Rock School Board agreed to comply with the High Court's ruling. Virgil Blossom, the Superintendent of Schools, submitted a plan of gradual integration to the school board in May 1955, which the board unanimously approved.  The Blossom Plan (aka the Little Rock Phase Program) would be implemented during the Fall of the 1957 school year, at High School level, and filter down to the lower grades over the next six years.

Virgil Blossom

Under the plan, students would be permitted to transfer from any school where their race was in the minority, thus ensuring that the Black schools would remain racially-segregated, because most believed that few, if any, White students would opt to attend predominantly-Black schools.

By 1957, the NAACP had registered nine black students to attend the previously all-White Little Rock Central High, selected on the criteria of excellent grades and attendance. They had been attending the segregated, Black school, Horace Mann High School, and were due to start school in the Fall of 1957, under The Blossom Plan. The nicknamed, Little Rock Nine, consisted of Ernest Green (b. 1941), Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), Jefferson Thomas (b. 1942), Terrence Roberts (b. 1941), Carlotta Walls (b. 1942), Minnijean Brown (b. 1941), Gloria (b. 1942), Thelma Mothershed (b. 1940), and Melba Pattillo (b. 1941).

Little Rock Nine in 1957 and modern day

Needless to say, most of the White community was extremely unhappy about their ‘invading’ Central High.  The unhappiness spread all the way to the State government. In defiance of a Federal court order, Arkansas Governor, Orval Faubus, called out the Arkansas National Guard, to prevent the nine students from entering the school.

Governor Orval Faubus

When Elizabeth Eckford arrived at the campus, she was confronted by an angry mob of segregationist protestors. She attempted to enter at the front of the school, but was directed back out to the street by the National Guardsmen. Terrified, and walking alone, Elizabeth eventually made it to a bus stop and sat on a bench to wait for a bus to take her to her mother’s workplace.  Elizabeth later said of the experience, “I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob – someone who would possibly help me. I looked into the face of an elderly woman, and it seemed like a kind face; but when I looked again, she spat on me.”

Elizabeth Eckford being denied entrance to Central High

The other eight students arrived together, on the same day, flanked by a racially-integrated group of local ministers, who were there to support them. They were also turned away by The National GuardsmenThe Nine remained at home for more than two weeks, trying to keep up with their schoolwork, as best they could.

National Guard turning away the other eight students

National Guard guarding Central High

The news of their first day reached the Federal Courts, who subsequently issued an order to force Gov. Faubus to stop interfering and remove The National Guard.

On September 23rd, The Nine were able to cross the threshold of the school’s front doors, The vicious crowd, outside, chanted, “2, 4, 6, 8, we ain’t gonna integrate!” and chased and beat Black reporters, who were covering the events. The local Little Rock Police, feared that they would not be able to control the increasingly unruly mob, in front of the school, so they removed The Nine from the school, that morning.  Once again, the determined students returned home and waited for further information on when they would be able to attend school.

Little Rock Integration Protest

The situation was gaining national attention, and had reached all the way to The White House. Calling the mob’s actions “disgraceful,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched 1,200 members of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division – the Screaming Eagles, at the request of Little Rock Mayor, Woodrow Wilson Mann, to take control; and the Arkansas National Guard became Federalized, thus falling under the Army’s orders, rather than Governor Faubus’s.

On September 25, 1957, under Federal Troop escort, The Nine returned to Central High School for their first, full day of classes.  None of The Nine attended any classes together, and they were not allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities. So it was extremely lonely for each of them. 

Little Rock Nine being escorted into school

The first, few days were horrific; and The Nine were subjected to repeated harassment, such as: kicking, shoving and name-calling. So, the military had to escort them to classes. The harassment moved to where the Army could not escort: the restrooms, locker rooms and lunchrooms. Melba Pattillo had acid thrown into her eyes; and some White girls attempted to burn her alive by trapping her in a restroom stall and dropping pieces of flaming paper on her from above.  Nevertheless, they persevered because they wanted to receive an equal education.

Melba Pattillo

Minnijean Brown was the first to cave under the constant harassment. One day at lunch, in December 1957, she could no longer take the torment; so she dumped a bowl of chili on two White boys. A White girl hit Minnijean, so she responded by calling her “White Trash.” Minnijean was first suspended and subsequently expelled.  Recalling the incident, she said, “I just couldn’t take everything, they were throwing at me, without fighting back.”

Minnijean Brown

The other eight students remained at Central until the end of the school year, and the military presence also remained for the duration of the year. On May 27, 1958, Ernest Green became Central High School’s first African-American graduate. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended his graduation ceremony. He later told reporters, “It has been an interesting year. I’ve had a course in human relations, first hand.”

Ernest Green on Graduation Day

In late Spring 1958, as the school year was drawing to a close, Governor Faubus decided to petition the decision by the Federal District Court in order to postpone the desegregation of public high schools in Little Rock. In the Cooper v. Aaron court case, the Little Rock School District, under the leadership of Gov. Faubus, was fighting for a two-and-a-half year delay on desegregation, meaning that Black students would only be permitted into public high schools in January 1961. Gov. Faubus argued that if the schools remained integrated, there would be an increase in violence. However, in August 1958, the Federal Courts ruled against the delay for desegregation, which consequently incited Gov. Faubus to call together an Extraordinary Session of the State Legislature, on August 26, in order to enact his Segregation Bills.

In September 1958, Gov. Faubus signed acts that enabled him and the Little Rock School District to close all public schools. Thus, with this Bill signed, on September 15, Gov. Faubus ordered the closure of all four public high schools, preventing both Black and White students from attending school.  This year would come to be known as the Lost Year. During this time, the other eight students, of the Little Rock Nine, were forced to attend other schools or take correspondence classes.

Tensions increased, which caused the White citizens of Little Rock to turn on the Black community. The latter became a target for hate crimes since people blamed them for the closing of the schools. Daisy Bates, then Head of the NAACP Little Rock chapter, was a primary victim to these crimes, in addition to the Black students enrolled at Little Rock Central High School and their families.

Little Rock Nine with Daisy Bates

In May 1959, after the firing of forty-four teachers and administrative staff from the four high schools, three segregationist board members were replaced with three moderate ones. The new board members reinstated the forty-four staff members to their positions. 
Although the Lost Year had come to an end, the Black students, who returned to the high schools, were not welcomed by the other students. Rather, they had a difficult time getting past mobs to enter the school; and, once inside, they were once again subjected to physical and emotional abuse. Eventually, the situation calmed down, and the school became fully-integrated in a harmonious setting.

Central High School students, today

Little Rock Central High School still functions as part of the Little Rock School District, and is now a National Historic Site that houses a Civil Rights Museum, administered in partnership with the National Park Service, to commemorate the events of 1957.

Fellow Arkansas son, President Bill Clinton, honored the Little Rock Nine, in November 1999, when he presented them each with a Congressional Gold Medal. That same year, The Nine established The Little Rock Nine Foundation, which provides financial support to needy and worthy students and urges governmental bodies to ensure access to high-quality access to education.

Congressional Medal Awards Ceremony with President Clinton

In 2007, the United States Mint stamped a commemorative silver dollar to "recognize and pay tribute to the strength, the determination and the courage displayed by African-American high school students in the Fall of 1957." The obverse depicts students accompanied by a soldier, with nine stars symbolizing the Little Rock Nine. The reverse depicts an image of Little Rock Central High School, c. 1957. On December 9, 2008, the Little Rock Nine were invited to attend the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

The Little Rock Nine were some of the most courageous pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement. Regardless of race we are indebted to them for helping pave the way to better, integrated schools, across the United States.

Click here to watch a 4.5 minute video, about their experience, in their own words.  


Ernest Green graduated from Michigan State University and served as Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs under President Jimmy Carter. He was a Managing Partner and VP of Lehman Brothers, in Washington DC before retiring.  He now sits on several charitable boards.

Elizabeth Eckford is the only one of The Nine to still be living in Little Rock. She made a career in the US Army that included work as a journalist. After the Army, she became a part-time social worker.

Jefferson Thomas gradated from Central High in 1960. He became an accountant with the US Department of Defense and lived in Anaheim, California. He passed away in 2010.

Dr. Terrence Roberts moved to Los Angeles, with his family, in 1958, where he completed High School. He earned a Doctorate Degree, teaches at UCLA, and is a clinical psychologist.

Carlotta Wall Lanier is one of only three of the nine to graduate for Central High School. She and Jefferson Thomas returned for their senior year in 1959. She graduated from Michigan State University and presently lives in Englewood, Colorado, where she works in real estate.

Minnijean Brown-Trickey finished high school in New York. She married and moved to Canada, with her husband, during the Vietnam War protests; and today, is a writer and social worker in Ontario.

Gloria Ray Karlmark graduated from Illinois Technical College and received a post-graduate degree in Stockholm, Sweden. She was a prolific computer science writer and, at one time, successfully published magazines, in 39 countries.  Now retired, she divides her time between homes in Amsterdam and Stockholm.

Thelma Mothershed-Wair became a teacher after graduating from college. She lives in Belleville, Illinois, where she is also a volunteer in a program for abused women.

Melba Pattillo-Beals lives in San Francisco and is an author and former journalist for People magazine and NBC.

Little Rock Nine Monument, Arkansas State Capitol

Sources:  Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Google Images, Central High ’57, Little Rock 9 Foundation, YouTube

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