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Profiles in Courage: On September 4, 1957, the Little Rock Nine started a movement to integrate schools across the Deep South

On what should have been their first day of classes at Central High School on Sept. 4, 1957, nine students were barred from entering the building in Little Rock, Arkansas, by armed members of the National Guard and a crowd of angry white people chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate.”

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to form a blockade around the front door of Central High, while a screaming mob gathered in front of the students, jeering at them with racial slurs, vicious insults and threats.

Those students, known as the Little Rock Nine, became the first Black teenagers to attend what was still an all-white high school three years after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education outlawed school segregation.

The Little Rock Nine didn’t turn back at the sight of the sinister crowd. Instead, they braved their way through. Still, the National Guard denied them entry. Although the students were not able to attend school that day, a federal judge ordered the National Guard to stand down 16 days later, after a team of NAACP lawyers – including Thurgood Marshall – challenged Gov. Faubus’ actions.

The National Guard could no longer keep them out, but the looming threat of mob violence still prevented the Black students from going to school. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to end the standoff, lest he “set the process of integration back 50 years.” On Sept. 23, 1957, Eisenhower deployed a military escort from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. On Sept. 25, 1957, the Little Rock Nine attended classes for the first time, protected by federal troops and the Arkansas National Guard.

Rather than allow desegregation to continue, Faubus closed all Little Rock high schools the next fall. A subsequent lawsuit challenging the closure decree escalated to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Little Rock schools must reopen and resume desegregation. 

The Little Rock Nine became a guiding light for generations of student and nonstudent activists who have continued to chip away at the vestiges of segregation. Their courage and conviction is a moving reminder of the importance of fighting for an anti-racist educational system that achieves equity for all. 

Lead photo by Will Counts/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/AP Images

Several people hold signs protesting the admission of nine Black students to the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Black students who integrated the school are known as the Little Rock Nine.

John T. Bledsoe/Library of Congress

New York City Mayor Robert Wagner greets the Little Rock Nine. In the front row, from left to right, are Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Carlotta Walls, Wagner, Thelma Mothershed and Gloria Ray. In the back row, from left to right, are Terrance Roberts, Ernest Green, Melba Pattilo and Jefferson Thomas.

Walter Albertin/Library of Congress

Four white students pose with a large sign which falsely states that the federal government ordered Central High School closed. In fact, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the closure of all high schools in Little Rock for the 1958-59 academic year rather than allow integration.

Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo

Under orders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division prepare to escort the Little Rock Nine into Central High School.

Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, poses in her living room with the Little Rock Nine in 1957. The NAACP played a major role in the desegregation of Central High School. Bottom row, from left to right: Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford and Gloria Ray. Top row, from left to right: Jefferson Thomas, Melba Pattillo, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Bates and Ernest Green.

Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo

Marchers protest school integration in September 1957 by heading south from the Arkansas State Capitol toward Central High.

Will Counts/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/AP Images

Troopers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division take up positions outside Central High on the morning of Sept. 26, 1957, to enforce integration at the school.

AP Images

Only white students were allowed to enter Central High School on Sept. 5, 1957, a day after the Arkansas National Guard prevented Black students from attending classes – even though the school was under integration orders from U.S. District Judge Ronald N. Davies. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had ordered the military men to surround the school to bar Black students from the grounds.

William P Straeter/AP Images

On Sept. 25, 1957, the Little Rock Nine attended classes for the first time, protected by federal troops. Here, they leave Central High School after finishing another school day.

Bettmann/Getty Images

The Little Rock Nine, from top left in this 1957 photo, are: Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Melba Patillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, Carlotta Walls and Thelma Mothershed.

MPI/Getty Images

Lawyer Thurgood Marshall and Arkansas NAACP President Daisy Bates join several members of the Little Rock Nine. Marshall, who had successfully argued before the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated schools, joined NAACP lawyers in convincing a federal judge to reverse Gov. Orval Faubus’ order to block the nine Black students from entering Central High School.

Bettmann/Getty Images