Rights and Protest: 60 years since the Little Rock 9 entered Central High School

When I opened the paper today (yes, some of us still do that), there was a brief interview with some of the members of the Little Rock 9.  60 years ago today, 9 African-American teenagers entered Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, in a bid to begin the end of segregation in education.  If you look at the photo of the students that the Associated Press/Fox News used in its article, you see a group of pleasant, well-dressed young people on their way to school, the reality of this event is more evident in the photograph below

By John T. Bledsoe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The difficulty in enforcing Supreme Court Legislation is clearer here: two days earlier the students tried to enter the school but the protests and attempts to block their entrance proved too much and they had to withdraw.  The federal government provided support and they were then able to enter with US military as their escorts:

U.S. Troops escort African American students from Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, October 3, 1957. Gelatin silver print. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (130B)

The first day of school proved to be the beginning of a very difficult year; they were largely isolated and had a difficult time making friends.  Those few white students who approached them faced tremendous peer pressure or threats, and withdrew those initial overtures.  The Little Rock 9 were subject to insults and physical attacks and yet they persevered.

These students and their parents were very brave in the face of a hostile environment.  As Minnijean Brown Trickey said in an interview about her experience, these students were children – they were not civil rights activists, and yet they became iconic symbols of the racial struggle in the United States.  When those students entered the school, they bore the burden of educational equality on their shoulders at the ages of 14 through 17.  They were younger than most Diploma Candidates.

Minnijean was expelled from Central High after an altercation with a white student; her parents appealed the expulsion, stating that her actions were the result of constant abuse from other students, but the expulsion stood.  She completed her high school studies in New York City, in a more progressive school.

Desegregation led to a complete breakdown of the education system in Arkansas and a year-long closure of high schools.  Rather than continue integration, 1958-1959 became the ‘lost year’ of education in Little Rock as the entire district closed.  One of the Little Rock 9 (Ernest Green) had graduated in June 1958 but the other 8 had to go elsewhere in the following school year.

This action of desegregation is usually taught in schools, but the aftermath is not.  It is important to understand that the Lost Year is more reflective of the political climate at the time, and why the civil rights movement continued.  It took not just Supreme Court rulings, but legislation to end the Jim Crow laws that dominated the US south, and the success of all of these actions can be questioned.

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