In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was legal for schools to be segregated. This meant that there could be schools just for white children and schools just for black children. However, the schools for black children were not as good and people thought this was unfair.
Brown v. Board of Education
In order to fight against segregation in schools, a lawsuit called Brown v. Board of Education was brought to the Supreme Court in 1954. The lawyer representing African-Americans was Thurgood Marshall. He won the case and the Supreme Court said that segregation in schools was unconstitutional.
Despite the new ruling of the Supreme Court, some schools in the South did not allow black children. In Little Rock, Arkansas, a plan was put together to slowly integrate the schools, but it allowed for integration very slowly and didn't allow for blacks to attend some high schools.
Little Rock Integration Protest by John T. Bledsoe
Who were the Little Rock Nine?
One of the high schools that blacks were not allowed to attend was Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The local leader of the NAACP was a lady named Daisy Bates. Daisy recruited nine African-American high school students to enroll at Central High. The nine students were Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Jefferson Thomas, Melba Patillo, and Carlotta Walls. These students became known as the Little Rock Nine.
First Day at School
When the Little Rock Nine went to attend the first day of school on September 4, 1957 they were probably scared and worried. It's bad enough to go to a first day at a new school, but this was much worse. When the students arrived there were people yelling at them. They told them to go away and that they didn't want them there. In addition to the other students, there were National Guard soldiers blocking their way into the school. The governor of Arkansas had deployed the soldiers to prevent the students from going to school and in defiance of the Supreme Court.
The students were scared and they returned home.
After the Arkansas governor got involved in stopping the Little Rock Nine from attending school, President Dwight Eisenhower took action. He sent the U.S. Army to Little Rock to protect the students. A few weeks later, the students attended school surrounded by army soldiers.
Having the soldiers only protected the Little Rock Nine from harm, but they still had a very difficult year. Many of the white students treated them poorly and called them names. It took a lot of courage to stay in school even for one day. One student, Minnijean Brown, couldn't take it any longer and finally left for a high school in New York. The other eight, however, made it to the end of the year and one student, Ernest Green, graduated.
After the first year, in 1958, the Arkansas governor closed all the public high schools in Little Rock. He decided that it was better to have no school at all than to have integrated schools. The schools remained closed for the entire school year. When the schools reopened the following year, many people blamed the Little Rock Nine for causing them to miss a year of school. The racial tension got worse in the coming years.
Although the immediate results of the Little Rock Nine's actions were not positive, they did help the de-segregation of public schools to take a huge step forward in the South. Their bravery gave other students the courage to press forward in the years to come.
Interesting Facts about the Little Rock Nine
Before going to school, Lois Patillo told her daughter Melba "Smile, no matter what. Remember, not everyone approved of what Jesus did, but that didn't stop him."
Melba Patillo grew up to become a reporter for NBC News.
Terrance Roberts continued his education and eventually earned his Ph.D. and became a professor at UCLA.
One of the most successful of the Little Rock Nine was Ernest Green who worked for President Jimmy Carter as the Assistant Secretary of Labor.