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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: All Eyes on Little Rock Central High

Built in 1927 at a cost of $1.5 million, Little Rock Senior High School, later to be renamed Little Rock Central High, was hailed as the most expensive, most beautiful, and largest high school in the nation. Its opening earned national publicity with nearly 20,000 people attending the dedication ceremony. The next two decades there were typical of those at most American high schools, but historic events in the 1950s changed education at Central High School and throughout the United States.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States made a historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka when it declared that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and future Supreme Court Justice, had successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court. As part of his argument to end segregation, he referenced the case Prudence Crandall's lawyers made against Connecticut's Black Law. As a result of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the "separate but equal" doctrine set forth in the Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson was no longer valid. In May 1955, after carefully considering how the ruling should be implemented, the Court stated that Federal District Courts would have jurisdiction over the desegregation plans of local school districts and that these plans should be formulated and put into effect "with all deliberate speed."

Arkansas was considered a moderate southern border state on the issue of race relations and civil rights. A few days after the Supreme Court's decision, the Little Rock School Board held a special meeting to discuss its impact on the city's schools. A unanimous resolution declared that the Board would comply and gradual desegregation would begin at the high school level in the 1957 school year. Central High was selected to be the first to desegregate with lower grades following over the next six years.

There was little open dissent among the city's white citizens in the three years of planning for the desegregation of Central High School. In January 1956, several African-American students attempted to enroll in Little Rock's schools. In response, lower courts judged the 1957 desegregation date to be in line with the Supreme Court's ruling and denied admittance to the students. The effort of African Americans to enroll in white schools flamed public interest in the desegregation plan. During the summer of 1957, a few months before Central High was to desegregate, opposition began to crystallize as the Capital Citizen's Council, the Little Rock version of a white citizen's council, and the Central High Mothers' League launched a media campaign against the School Board's plan and integration in general.

Amidst growing turmoil, the superintendent and staff interviewed African-American students who lived in the Central High district and expressed interest in participating in school integration. Out of the students selected, several later decided to stay at their all-black high school. The remaining students became known as the "Little Rock Nine." The co-editor of the Tiger, Little Rock Central High School's student newspaper, summarized the events surrounding the planned desegregation in the September 19, 1957, issue as follows:

Classes were scheduled to begin promptly at 8:45 a.m., September 3, at Little Rock Central High School when incidents began happening which caused the school to be the center of nationwide publicity. Photographs and articles have appeared in national magazines, and newspapers throughout the United States have told the story of how nine Negro students had been registered for admission to Central. To better understand the happenings of the past two weeks, here is a summary of the history of the school situation.

Supreme Court Rules
On May 17, 1954 the United States Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in the schools was unconstitutional. Just five days later the Little Rock School Board issued a policy statement that said it would comply with the Supreme Court decision when the Court outlined the method to be followed. In May, 1955 the School Board adopted a plan of gradual integration under which the high school grades would be integrated starting in September, 1957.

Injunction Proceedings
Pulaski Chancellor Murry O. Reed issued a temporary injunction against enrolling Negroes in Central High on August 29, after Mrs. Clyde Thomason, recording secretary of the Mother's League, had filed suit in Pulaski Chancery Court.

Federal District Judge Ronald N. Davies of North Dakota nullified the Pulaski Chancery Court injunction the next day and ordered the School Board to proceed with its gradual integration plan beginning with the opening of school on September 3.

Governor Calls Guard
Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard and the State Police on the night of September 2 to surround the LRCHS campus with instructions to keep peace and order. About 270 Army and Air National Guard troops under the command of Colonel Marion Johnson formed lines for the two blocks along the front of the school. The first day of school drew a crowd of about 300 spectators; the troops had closed the streets around the school to all traffic.

There were groups of uniformed men posted at each entrance and all sides of the building with orders to admit only students, teachers, and school officials. Judge Davies again ordered integration to proceed at a hearing which lasted less than five minutes on the night of September 3.

Nine Negroes Arrive
Nine Negro students arrived to enroll at Central on the second day of school but were turned away by the National Guardsmen at the direction of Governor Faubus.

That afternoon Federal Judge Davies ordered an investigation by all offices of the Department of Justice to determine who was responsible for the interference of the court's order to proceed with integration. The National Guard remained on duty. A petition asking for a stay of the integration order was sought in the interest of education by the School Board on September 7, but it was denied by Judge Davies.

Gov. Accepts Summons
A week after school had opened, on September 10, Governor Faubus was served with a Federal Court summons. Federal Judge Davies ordered the Governor and the Arkansas National Guard made defendants in the case and scheduled a hearing for tomorrow, September 20. Later that day, the nine Negroes who had failed to enter LRCHS said they would not make another attempt until after the hearing. At a press conference after the summons had been accepted Governor Faubus said that the Guard Troops would remain at Central for the time being.

Historic Meeting Occurs
Last Saturday an unprecedented conference took place between President Eisenhower and Governor Faubus at Newport, Rhode Island, to discuss the school situation. Although many details have been written about this meeting, no definite statements have been made as to the possible outcome.

The October 3, 1957, issue of the Tiger continued the story:

Nine Negro students attended Little Rock Central High School last week for the first time in history. They arrived at the school Wednesday, September 25, accompanied by crack paratroopers of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division. An Army station wagon carried the students to the front entrance of the building while an Army helicopter circled overhead and 350 armed paratroopers stood at parade rest around the building.

Never before had Federal troops been used to enforce integration in a public school.

Third Attempt Made
This was the third attempt the Negro students had made to attend classes at Central. For three weeks the Arkansas National Guard had patrolled the school on orders of Governor Orval Faubus. Then on September 20 the troops were withdrawn by the Governor after the Federal Court had issued an injunction requiring him to withdraw the troops.

All was quiet over the week-end at CHS, but on Monday, September 23, eight of the Negro students enrolled at Central. Uncontrolled violence grew so swiftly in the area surrounding the school campus that city law enforcement officers decided it was wise to withdraw the Negro students shortly after noon on the same day.

Federal Troops Arrive
President Eisenhower took unprecedented action on September 24, when he called the Arkansas National Guard into active military service to deal with the Little Rock school integration crisis. President Eisenhower also authorized Secretary of Defense Wilson to use regular Army troops in addition to the National Guard Units.

Accordingly, about 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, began arriving at the Little Rock Air Force Base on the evening of September 24. They immediately took up positions around the school.

General Advises Students
The Department of the Army designated Major General Edwin A. Walker chief of the Arkansas Military District.

As commander of the troops in the Little Rock area, Major General Walker addressed the student body and explained his position clearly.

All Quiet Within
Halls were quiet within the schools as the Negro students entered. They proceeded to their pre-arranged classes and school work went on just about as usual. At least two dozen soldiers without bayonets patrolled the halls.

Many Central students were absent; of the 2,000 enrolled, about 1,250 attended classes. On Friday the attendance was back up to 1450. At press time it was almost normal.

Although some of the students, teachers, and administration attempted to maintain a sense of normalcy, for the nine students that integrated Central High School it was like going to war every day. One of the Little Rock Nine, Melba Pattillo Beals, describes their experience in her book Warriors Don't Cry:

My eight friends and I paid for the integration of Central High with our innocence. During those years when we desperately needed approval from our peers, we were victims of the most harsh rejection imaginable. The physical and psychological punishment we endured profoundly affected our lives. It transformed us into warriors who dared not cry even when we suffered intolerable pain.¹
Integration affected both their lives at school and at home. At school these students were elbowed, poked, kicked, punched, and pushed. They faced verbal abuse from segregationists as well as death threats against themselves, their families, and members of the black community. At home, their families endured threatening phone calls; some of the parents lost their jobs; and the black community as a whole was harassed by bomb threats, gun shots, and bricks thrown through windows. While the students received some support from their community, they also were alienated by those who felt their actions jeopardized the safety of others.

Eight of the Little Rock Nine bravely finished the school year. One student was suspended and later expelled due to altercations with segregationists. In May 1958, with federal troops and city police on hand, Ernest Green, the only senior of the Little Rock Nine, graduated from Central High.

After that year, however, the story was far from over. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the Little Rock School Board made attempts to delay further desegregation. In August 1958, Governor Faubus called a special session of the state legislature to pass a law allowing him to close public schools to avoid integration. Faubus ordered Little Rock's high schools closed the following month, forcing approximately 3,700 high school students to seek alternative schooling during the 1958-59 school year. Finally, in June 1959, a federal court declared the state's school-closing law unconstitutional, and the schools reopened in the fall. Under the guidance of the new School Board, Little Rock Central High reopened in August 1959. Although a group of demonstrators marched to the school's opening, the local police broke up the mob and the school year began peacefully as several of the Little Rock Nine returned to Central High School.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why do you think the Little Rock School Board decided to put off desegregation for three years after the 1954 ruling? Why do you think they did not attempt to desegregate all schools at once?

2. Why do you think some students tried to enroll before the scheduled integration date? What was the result?

3. Why do you think several African-American students selected to attend Central High ultimately decided not to switch schools? What might you have done in that situation?

4. Who published the Tiger? From the account presented by the Tiger articles what impression do you have about the events surrounding the integration of Central High? Does the article appear biased either for or against integration? Why or why not?

5. Why did Governor Faubus send units of the Arkansas National Guard to Central High? How do you think calling in the National Guard to keep the students out influenced public reaction to the integration of Central High?

6. Why did President Eisenhower call on the National Guard to protect the students? Why did he send the 101st Airborne Division? How might you have felt if you were part of the Arkansas National Guard called to first enforce segregation, and then enforce integration?

7. How have the two events discussed in Readings 1 & 2 influenced your understanding of the conflict that sometimes occurs between state and federal authorities?

8. How did the experience of students at Central High compare to those that attended Prudence Crandall's school? Reread the song lyrics found in Reading 1. Did they also apply to the Little Rock Nine? If so, how?

Reading 2 was compiled from "Little Rock High School" (Pulaski County, Arkansas) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1970; Georgia Dortch, "Central High Thrown in National Spotlight as it Faces Integration," the Tiger, September 19, 1957; "Integration Goes Forward at CHS," the Tiger, October 3, 1957; "Golden Years," Little Rock Central High School's 50th anniversary yearbook, published in 1977; and Melba Pattillo Beals, Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High (New York: Washington Square Press, 1994).

¹Melba Pattillo Beals, Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High (New York: Washington Square Press, 1994), 2.

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