Desegregating Little Rock

On this day in 1957, under escort from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, nine black students enter all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three weeks earlier, the nine African American students had arrived on the second day of school accompanied by a small interracial group of ministers.

They encountered a large, menacing white mob in front of the school, who began shouting, throwing stones, and threatening to kill the students. In addition, about 270 soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard, sent by Arkansas Gov. Orval Eugene Faubus, blocked the school’s entrance. Faubus vowed to continue open defiance of a federal court order in the service of “states rights” and racial purity.

After a tense standoff, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent 1,000 army paratroopers of the elite 101st Airborne to Little Rock to enforce the court order. Troops remained at Central High School throughout the school year, but still the black students were subjected to verbal and physical assaults from a faction of white students. Melba Patillo, one of the nine, had acid thrown in her eyes, and Elizabeth Eckford was pushed down a flight of stairs.

The three male students in the group were subjected to more conventional beatings. Minnijean Brown was suspended after dumping a bowl of chili over the head of a taunting white student. She was later suspended for the rest of the year after continuing to fight back. The other eight students consistently turned the other cheek.

On May 27, 1958, Ernest Green, the only senior in the group, became the first black to graduate from Central High School. The following Fall Gov. Faubus was reelected, and rather than permit further desegregation, he closed all of Little Rock’s schools.

Many school districts in the South followed Little Rock’s example, closing schools or implementing an early version of “school-choice” programs that subsidized white students’ attendance at private segregated academies, which were not covered by the Supreme Court’s decision. Little Rock Central High School did not reopen with a desegregated student body until 1960.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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