|Arkansas National Guard Troops and mobs of Whites surround Litttle Rock Central High School on September 5, 1957 to prevent 9 Black Students from enrolling in the school.|
A lot of folks have gone to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the sure fire Oscar bait that traces race relations in the United States over decades through the eyes and experience of White House buttler Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker. Early in Gaines’ tenure he witnesses the struggle of President Dwight D. Eisenhower as he and his staff try to come to grips with the defiance of Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus to court ordered desegregation of Little Rock Central High School his mobilization of the National Guard to prevent Black students from attending. Eisenhower, played somewhat incongruously by Robin Williams, finally reluctantly calls up the 101st Airborn to enforce the court order and protect Black students who had been under attack.
That snippet is about all that those who did not live through it will ever know about the dramatic confrontation that for the first time since Reconstruction put Federal power squarely on the side of enforcing national legal norms on the recalcitrant Deep South. Here is the whole story.
On September 4, 1957 Faubus mobilized the state National Guard to block 9 Black students from beginning classes at Little Rock Central High School. The nine students, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo, were all legally registered at the school after the local Board of Education had voted unanimously to follow the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and desegregate the school.
The local chapter of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) had carefully recruited the students, picking only outstanding students with excellent attendance records and “respectable” families. The Mothers' League of Central High, a thinly disguised front for the White Capital Citizen’s Council, had appealed to Faubus in August to block the Board’s decision to integrate the school. The Governor supported the group’s appeal for an emergency injunction to block integration to “prevent violence.” Federal Judge Ronald Davies denied the request and ordered that school open with the students.
Faubus went on television on September 2, the eve of the scheduled opening of classes, to announce his call up of the Guard, again supposedly to prevent violence. The School Board asked the nine students not to attend the first day of school, but Judge Davis ordered the Board to proceed on September 4.
Guardsmen circled the building and a mob of hundreds of white protestors clogged the surrounding area. Guardsmen turned back one group of students. Fifteen year old Elizabeth Eckford, approaching alone toward a different entrance was also turned away. As she turned to walk to a bus stop, she was surrounded by the mob. “They moved closer and closer,” she later recalled, “...Somebody started yelling ... I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.” She finally made her way to the bus stop and escaped, but her ordeal was captured by national television cameras and still photographers.
The Board again appealed to Judge Davies for a relief injunction. He again refused and directed U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. to file a petition for an injunction against Faubus and officers of the Arkansas National Guard to prevent them from obstructing his court order to desegregate the school.
As legal maneuvering continued, tension in the city mounted. On September 9 the Black students did get some support from the Council of Church Women who asked the Governor to remove the troops and allow desegregation to proceed. They announced a city-wide prayer service for September 12. Members of the council were threatened with violence.
Meanwhile Democratic Congressman Brook Hays arranged a meeting between the Governor and President Dwight D. Eisenhower at his vacation home in Newport, Rhode Island. Faubus refused to back down.
On September 20 Judge Davies issued a direct order to cease interfering with the enrolment of the Black students. Faubus recalled the Guard and left the state for a Southern Governor’s Conference where he hoped to rally support.
On Monday, September 23 Little Rock Police were left to contend with a snarling mob of over 1000 people. The Black students slipped into the building by a side entrance while the crowd was distracted by beating four black reporters covering developments. When the mob discovered that they were inside they threatened to storm the school. Once again the nine students were sent home for “their own safety” with police protection.
Eisenhower had enough. When Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann appealed for Federal support for his overwhelmed police, the President was ready to act. He nationalized the Arkansas National Guard to take it out from under the command of the Governor. In a move unprecedented since Reconstruction, Eisenhower ordered the elite 101st Airborn Division to Little Rock. The next day, September 27, troops took up positions and escorted the students into the building.
Federal troops continued to escort the students daily for a week. The majority of the troops were withdrawn and duty transferred to the Guard under close supervision of Regular Army officers on October 1. They first attended school in civilian rather than military vehicles on October 25 and all Federal troops were finally withdrawn in November.
The students were enrolled, but their ordeal was far from over. All were harassed and threatened by white students in the school. Melba Petillo had acid thrown in her eyes. Minnijean Brown was assaulted several times and eventually suspended and expelled for dropping a bowl of chili on an assailant in the lunch room. All students were completely ostracized by their white classmates. School authorities eventually also suspended more than 100 white students and expelled four.
Despite the distraction, at the end of the school year Ernest Green became the first black student to graduate from Central High.
But it was not over. Faubus closed the school for the 1958-’59 term. When courts ordered it re-opened in September of 1959 only two of the original Little Rock 9, Carlotta Walls and Jefferson Thomas, came back. They both graduated in 1961.
Other Southern Governors, notably Alabama’s George Wallace would continue to try and defy Federal school desegregation orders, but the knowledge that the government was willing to call out the Army to enforce the desegregation undoubtedly prevented much future violence.