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