Remembering the Little Rock Nine and Their Fight to Integrate U.S. Schools

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Sixty-three years ago, the Little Rock Nine – nine Black students in Arkansas – were finally able to attend their first full day of classes at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The historic moment came weeks after the state’s governor repeatedly blocked them from attending the segregated school on Sept. 4.

Three years earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional in its decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. On Sept. 4, 1957, the “Little Rock Nine” attempted to enter Central High School but were blocked by Arkansas National Guard troops sent by Governor Orval Faubus.

One of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, was infamously photographed as she approached the school as hostile white students and adults surrounded her. Another student, Minnijean Brown Trickey, later told reporters that she never intended for her first day of high school to become a political statement and didn’t expect the vitriol she and her friends faced.

“I’m nobody. I’ve never been hated. I’ve been loved all my life. I’m beautiful. I’m smart. I just can’t believe this. So I kind of describe it as having my heart broken,” Brown Trickey told The Guardian. “Of course, you know as an ‘American’ even living in a segregated society you do all the anthems and the pledges and you’re hiding under the desk from the Russians, and so brainwashing works well. So the heartbreak was: ‘I’m supposed to be living in a democracy. What? These people hate me. They don’t know me. They want to kill me.’”

On Sept. 20, federal Judge Ronald Davies ordered the Arkansas National Guard removed from the school and had the Little Rock Police Department take over. Three days later, police escorted the Little Rock Nine into the school but were forced to remove the students when an angry mob of 1,000 white people began to riot.

Nearly three weeks after the students first attempted to enter the school, President Dwight Eisenhower responded by sending more than 1,000 paratroopers from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. The next day, the Little Rock Nine were finally able to enter the school under the protection of the U.S. troops.

The troops remained at the school for the remainder of the year while the brave Little Rock Nine experienced routine harassment, violence and exclusion from extracurricular activities. Brown Trickey was expelled after responding to the hateful attacks in February 1958.

Determined to keep Black students from segregated schools, Governor Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s high schools for an entire school year. The schools remained closed after Little Rock’s citizens voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration. The high schools finally reopened in August 1959.

The expulsion and harassment did not stop Brown Trickey or her classmates. She went on to become an activist, social worker and environmentalist, while the other members of the Little Rock Nine also went on to have successful careers.

The Little Rock Nine paved the way for school integration in the United States. They were each awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton in 1999.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.