Today in History: National Guard prevents “Little Rock Nine” from entering all-white high school

September 4th, 2013

On September 4, 1957, a group of nine African American students known as the Little Rock Nine were prevented from entering Little Rock Central High School by Arkansas National Guardsmen, despite the Supreme Court ruling that segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. The conflict ultimately required President Dwight Eisenhower to send military protection to the school, allowing the students to attend classes.

The Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954 called for the desegregation of all schools in America. Following the decision, the NAACP registered African American students in previously all-white districts in the South, and the Little Rock School Board submitted their “Blossom Plan” to comply with the court’s ruling. However, the Blossom Plan was unbalanced in its treatment of black and white students, and it gerrymandered the district to allow very few black students to enroll in the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School.

To civil rights groups, the district’s plan did not do enough to comply with the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, while other groups staunchly opposed any attempt at desegregation. Arkansas governor Orval Faubus supported the segregationists, and deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent any black students from entering the Little Rock Central High School. When the nine black students arrived on campus on September 4, 1957 for the first day of classes, they were blocked by the guardsmen.

The school district, the Little Rock mayor’s office, and President Eisenhower all spoke out against Governor Faubus’s blockade of the school. On September 24, President Eisenhower spoke to the nation about his intention to send the 101st Airborne Division of the Army to escort the Little Rock Nine to class and federalize the entire Arkansas National Guard. Eisenhower said:

And so, with deep confidence, I call upon the citizens of the State of Arkansas to assist in bringing to an immediate end all interference with the law and its processes. If resistance to the Federal Court orders ceases at once, the further presence of Federal troops will be unnecessary and the City of Little Rock will return to its normal habits of peace and order and a blot upon the fair name and high honor of our nation in the world will be removed.

While the school year was far from perfect, with the Little Rock Nine suffering verbal and physical abuse from classmates, the events at Little Rock helped set a precedent for the desegregation of public schools. 

RELATED: Read this powerful short story by Diane Oliver, who grew up in the black southern middle class of the 1940s and 1950s and who was herself educated in segregated public schools. Oliver’s story allows modern readers to re-experience what it was like for a black family to break the color line in public education.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

Tags: ,