Fifty years ago this month people around the world watched a confrontation at Central High School in Little Rock, the state capital of Arkansas. A group of black school students tried to enter the previously all white school.
Images of the baying white mob and the calm dignity of the “Little Rock Nine” demanding their right to a decent education have become part of the iconography of the US civil rights movement.
The events of Little Rock were a crucial part of the fight for black people’s rights against the segregation and racism of the US South.
In the summer of 1957, 17 black students had gained places at previously white-only schools in Little Rock.
They were supported by the anti-racist National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
By the beginning of the new school year on 3 September, fear had whittled this down to nine students registered at Central High School.
This followed a 1954 US Supreme Court ruling that segregated education was constitutionally illegal, in a case brought by the NAACP.
Everyone was aware that this ruling threatened not only segregated schools, but the whole racist “Jim Crow” system – laws that enforced segregation.
The year-long Montgomery bus boycott occured between the ruling and its enactment. The boycott was triggered when a black woman broke the Jim Crow laws by refusing to give her seat to a white passenger.
This boycott launched the civil rights movement and the boycott was victorious in December 1956.
The Supreme Court left the timescale for school desegregation vague. In a local court case in Little Rock, the NAACP got a date for Arkansas – September 1957, when the new school year began.
State governor Orval E Faubus called the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school and prevent disorder – by refusing the black students access. They remained excluded until Friday 20 September, when Faubus’s order was over-ruled in court.
The Little Rock Nine went to school the following Monday, facing a crowd of more than 1,000 whites.
The black students managed to enter the school while the mob was distracted, assaulting two black reporters in the belief that they were students.
The crowd refused to disperse. By midday the mob seemed likely to break in, so the students were removed for their own safety.
US President Eisenhower was forced to act. The federal government took control of the local National Guard away from Faubus and moved in 1,000 soldiers from the regular army.
On Wednesday the nine returned, escorted in by 22 soldiers with fixed bayonets. They were finally able to go to school. But this escort became part of their daily routine.
In school the nine faced constant harassment. One, Minnijean Brown, was expelled for retaliating to the abuse. No white pupil faced similar punishment.
In May 1958 Ernest Green became the first black student to graduate from Central High. The battle against segregation was far from over but a mortal blow had been struck against Jim Crow.
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