Ivy Roberts has taught undergraduate-level film studies for over 9 years. She has a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in film production from Marlboro College. She also has a certificate in teaching online from UMGC and non-profit marketing and fundraising from UC Davis.
The Fight for Educational Equality
Would you rather get a below-average education at a local school or spend hours commuting to better facilities in another district, even if it has a discriminatory culture against outsiders? This was a decision posed to the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African American students from Horace Mann High, who chose to enroll in the all-white Central High. Their brave experiment became a milestone that launched school desegregation in the United States.
The Supreme Court decided that the segregation of schools (educating black and white children separately) was unconstitutional. This decision is known as Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) argued the case: 'It follows that with education, this Court has made segregation and inequality equivalent concepts…If segregation thus necessarily imports inequality, it makes no great difference whether we say that the Negro is wronged because he is segregated, or that he is wronged because he received unequal treatment.'
This lesson explores the history of school desegregation through the words of those who participated in the 1950s debate over educational equality.
Nine Brave Volunteers
The desegregation of American primary and secondary schools did not happen immediately. Years after the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional, state and local governments were still dragging their feet. The first steps were taken by Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP. 'Daisy Bates was the poster child of black resistance. She was a quarterback, the coach. We were the players,' says Ernest Green.
In line with the organization's mission to defend minority rights and end racial injustice, Bates recruited a group of African American students to be the first to transfer to the all-white school on the other side of town. These students became known as the Little Rock Nine:
- Ernest Green (b. 1941)
- Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941)
- Jefferson Thomas (1942-2010)
- Terrence Roberts (b. 1941)
- Carlotta Walls LaNier (b. 1942)
- Minnijean Brown (b. 1941)
- Gloria Ray Karlmark (b. 1942)
- Thelma Mothershed (b. 1940)
- Melba Pattillo Beals (b. 1941)
Contemplating her experience that year, Beals reminisced: 'I sometimes wish I could change myself into a psychiatrist to determine what makes me such a hated member of this school. Can they really be treating me this way simply because I am brown, that's all?'
On the first day of school in September, 1957, Governor Orval Faubus organized a blockade at Central High to keep the Little Rock Nine from entering. A week earlier, Faubus had given a speech condemning the NAACP for their 'forcible integration of the public schools of Little Rock against the overwhelming sentiment of the people of the area.' Distinguishing between the gradual at-will integration of universities, sports and government and the 'forcible' actions of the NAACP, Faubus argued that they would 'bring about widespread disorder and violence.' As a pre-emptive measure, Faubus called the National Guard to maintain order for fear that the mob would turn into a bloody riot.
The Nine Break Through
By the end of the month of September, the Little Rock Nine were finally able to get into the school. A group of NAACP lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall retaliated. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights icon and advocate, wrote several letters to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In a telegram dated September 9, 1957, King advised the president that if he did not step in it would 'set the process of integration back fifty years. This is a great opportunity for you and the federal government to back up the longings and aspirations of millions of peoples of good will and make law and order a reality.' In response, the President ordered the Army's 101st Airborne Division to escort the Nine into Central High. The troops remained in the school for the rest of the year to maintain order. Tensions were so high throughout the year that only one of the students, Ernest Green, successfully graduated. The others returned to Horace Mann.
The Legacy of the Nine
Images of the mob that formed out front are seared into the American popular imagination and the culture of the twentieth century as a reminder of our history of oppression and racial injustice. Several famous images capture the moment when Elizabeth Eckford walked through the mob of disconcerted soon-to-be classmates and outraged parents. Eckford and the others are depicted in Testament, a memorial located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol. A plaque accompanies the monument, displaying this quote by Eckford: 'If we have honestly acknowledged our painful but shared past, then we can have reconciliation.'
Following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision in 1954, the key players that contributed to the debate over the desegregation of Little Rock schools include:
- NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, who argued the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education
- NAACP representative Daisy Bates, who recruited a group of African American students known as the Little Rock Nine
- Martin Luther King, Jr., who convinced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to step in
- Elizabeth Eckford is remembered for the images prominently depicting her walking through the mob into Central High on September 20, 1957.
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