In 1957 the world’s attention was directed towards Little Rock Central High School and its first cohort of African American students. The ‘Little Rock Nine’ started school on 4 September 1957 to the dismay and contempt of many white Americans, including the governor of Arkansas. The civil rights cause was given an international stage. The nation and the world were shocked by this stand-off between president and governor; professional paratroopers and national guard; black students and white students.
This decision was greeted with contempt and resistant in the South. With pressure from the NAACP, the Little Rock school board adopted a plan for the gradual desegregation of its schools. This plan was fiercely opposed by many residents of Arkansas, including Governor Faubus.
Faubus ordered 270 National Guards troops to move into the Little Rock Central High School the day before the African American students were due to start school. The troops were directed to prevent the students from entering the school. Faubus’ justification was that they were needed to maintain law and order.
The students were to be known as The Little Rock Nine. They had been carefully vetted by Daisy Gaston Bates with her husbands L.C. Bates to ensure that they had the strength to cope with the media attention and hostility.
The students arrived on 4 September 1957. However, the National Guard blocked their entrance into the school. As the students left, they were verbally abused by white students and adults from Little Rock. These scenes were filmed and broadcast across the world - the overt racism of the South shocked the nation.
President Eisenhower stepped in to order the removal of the National Guard. On 23 September the Little Rock Police Department stepped in to escort the students into school. However, continued rioting by a white mob led to the police removing the students from the school.
Only on 24 September, when Eisenhower sent in 1,200 members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, were the students able to attend school. The last time the federal government had sent federal troops to the South was during Reconstruction.
The paratroopers did not leave until November and the National Guardsmen stayed for a year. Of the nine students, eight remained for the whole year and one went on to college. The students’ first year at school was not easy - they were spat on, threatened and one student was expelled for retaliating against these attacks.
Faubus was elected governor to six two-year terms and hence served for twelve years. Rather than simply accepting desegregation, Faubus chose to close all schools in Little Rock from 1958 to 1959. Although Little Rock Central High School started the school term in 1960 with a desegregated population, progress was slow. Even in 1964, just three per cent of black children went to desegregated schools.
See also: The 1957 Civil Rights Act
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