When the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, they unanimously overturned a previous ruling and declared that "separate but equal" was anything but equal. The ruling sent shock waves through a country divided on the issue of civil rights; it meant that all children, regardless of color, had the right to equal educational opportunity. Free at last.
But it wasn't until three years later, in 1957, that the court's ruling was actually put to the test. Nine black teenagers were to enroll and attend Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. A federal court ordered that Central High would comply with the Supreme Court ruling and admit these students to the previously all-white campus. In an act of defiance, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called the Arkansas National Guard and ordered them to stop the nine African-American students, the "Little Rock Nine," from ever entering the building.
That morning, September 4, 1957, the National Guard were successful. But ten days later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, met with Governor Faubus and arranged to have the students admitted to Central High. The Arkansas National Guard was to be called again, this time to protect the students from violent protestors. But in an even more blatant act of defiance, Faubus dismissed the troops, leaving the black students to fend for themselves, surrounded by a mob of angry segregationists. By noon that day, local police had evacuated the nine students from the building amid death threats, violence, property damage and rioting.
President Eisenhower was forced to dispatch paratroopers to Little Rock and put the Arkansas National Guard under federal command to enforce the ruling of the Supreme Court. The next day, students entered the building surrounded by soldiers wielding bayonets. Under this federal protection, the Little Rock Nine finished out the school year. In May of 1958, Ernest Green became the first African-American student ever to graduate from Little Rock Central High School.
In 1958, before the beginning of the following school year, Governor Faubus closed all the high schools to keep integration from happening. All students--black and white--were forced to move out of state, take correspondence courses, or just miss out on an education. Arkansas schools remained closed until 1959. When Central High reopened, only four of the original nine returned for classes.
The Little Rock Nine are:
Minnijean Brown, who was later expelled after fighting back against white students who attacked her. She moved to New York and graduated from a local high school there in 1959. Brown graduated from Southern Illinois University and today is a freelance writer in Ottawa.
Elizabeth Eckford, who served in the United States Army and holds a Bachelor's degree in History, currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Central High Museum & Visitor Center
Ernest Green, first Central graduate, who received a Master's of Arts degree from the University of Michigan. Green went on to serve as Assistant Labor Secretary for Employment and Training during President Carter's administration. He is currently the managing director of a finance company in Washington, D.C.
Thelma Mothershed, who entered Central as a junior and graduated via correspondance during the lock-out. She taught in the East St. Louis Public School System for 28 years before retiring in 1994.
Melba Pattillo moved to Santa Rosa, California to continue her education during the school lock-out. She went on to graduate with a degree from Columbia University. Patillo was a reporter for NBC and today is a communications consultant with several books to her credit. One of them, Warriors Don't Cry, received the ALA Notable Book for 1995 distinction and won the 1995 Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award.
Gloria Ray, now executive officer of a Dutch company and publisher of a European computer magazine, lives with her husband in the Netherlands.
Terrence Roberts also entered Central as a junior and went on to complete his senior year in Los Angeles, California. He later went on to receive several post-graduate degrees, including a Ph.D. in psychology from Southern Illinois University. He now maintains his private psychology practice and is CEO of a management consulting firm.
Jefferson Thomas graduated from Central with Carlotta Walls in 1960. He is an accountant with the United States Department of Defense.
Carlotta Walls, the youngest of the Nine, graduated from Central in 1960. Academic distinctions aside, Walls helped establish the Little Rock Nine Foundation, a non-profit organization engaged in ensuring the educational opportunities for African-American students.
It is not at all surprising that each of these extraordinary young people went on to even greater
things. To think that they may not have, because of the social injustice
of a segregated school system is simply astonishing. These nine men and women have truly contributed to society
, in spite of the thousands of tormentors who struggled to block them from their path.
Each of the Nine received a Congressional Gold Medal and were named "civil rights pioneers, whose selfless acts considerably advanced the civil rights debate in this country" in 1998. President Clinton also declared Little Rock Central High School a National Historic Site.