When the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate schools for whites and blacks were unconstitutional and inherently unequal, the slow and often violent dismantling of segregation in educational institutions began across the country.
Knowing that there would be defiance and resistance toward the Brown v. Board of Education decision, particularly in the South where Jim Crow prevailed, the Supreme Court refrained from setting a specific deadline for schools to begin the desegregation process.
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But in 1955, in a subsequent ruling that addressed the lagging progress being made by states, the court demanded that integration happen “with all deliberate speed.” The school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, voted to desegregate their high schools starting in 1957, which led to a crisis that catapulted the state’s governor into a showdown with the president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
By 1957, Arkansas had already integrated several state universities and smaller school districts. But when nine black students decided to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, which would desegregate a large urban district, threats of violence and protests ensued.
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Days before the school year started, the governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus, a segregationist, announced on September 2, 1957, that he would order the state’s National Guard to surround Central to prevent the black students from entering, under the guise of protecting them from mob violence. In response, Federal Judge Ronald Davies issued a ruling the very next day, mandating that integrated classes would proceed as the court-ordered.
But on September 4, when the black students, historically known as the Little Rock Nine, faced a vicious throng outside Central, they were denied entry by armed troops in the Arkansas National Guard. Images of the African American students being screamed at, heckled and spat on, made national and international news.
The intense stand-off continued over several weeks as the National Guard continued to surround the school in defiance of Judge Davies’s ruling. To discuss a solution, Governor Faubus visited President Eisenhower at his retreat in Newport, Rhode Island. Eisenhower faced a complicated predicament: He believed in adhering to the Constitution, but he wasn’t outwardly passionate about civil rights and didn’t speak in support of the Brown ruling.
“He wasn't that enthusiastic about the Supreme Court's decision and equivocated in public,” said John A. Kirk, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and author of Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis. “He didn’t put a strong backing to it.”
Eisenhower and Faubus agreed that the Arkansas National Guard would remain at the school to maintain order, so the black students could attend.
When the governor returned to Arkansas, however, he removed the National Guard troops from Central and left security to the local police. As the Little Rock Nine made another attempt to enter on September 23, they had to use a side entrance because a belligerent mob of 1,000 had formed outside. When a riot erupted, the police had to evacuate the black students for their safety. The mayor of Little Rock, Woodrow Mann, called on the president to intervene.
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The news incensed Eisenhower. “He was a military man and didn’t want his orders undermined,” said Kirk. “He felt Faubus had been insubordinate.” The president was also concerned the riots compromised the credibility of the United States, as a leader of democracy and a nation of laws during the Cold War era.
On September 23, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10730, which put the Arkansas National Guard under federal authority, and sent 1,000 U.S. Army troops from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, to maintain order as Central High School desegregated.
“Our enemies are gloating over this incident and using it everywhere to misrepresent our nation,” said Eisenhower, in a televised address he gave at the White House the day after he enforced his executive order. “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts.”
“Eisenhower was boxed into a corner and reached a point where he had to show the power of the federal government and chop off continued insurrection of southern segregationists,” says Dolores Barclay, an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School and administrative manager of the Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights. “His decision was decidedly political—to maintain federal power—and to ensure that Brown was enforced.”
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Arkansas National Guard Take Over Patrol
On September 25, 1957, the Little Rock Nine attended Central High for their first full day of classes, under the protection of the newly federalized Arkansas National Guard and the 101 Airborne Division, who steadily withdrew as a dwindling number of state soldiers took full control of security by December.
“It turned out to be a point of contention,” said Kirk. “The NAACP felt the kids were being abandoned and wanted to make sure the soldiers had a presence in the school and looked out for the students and protected their safety.”
From December until the end of the school year in May 1958, soldiers from the Arkansas National Guard patrolled the school, while the Little Rock Nine were regularly subjected to physical assaults, threats and slurs.
The following school term, in September 1958, Governor Faubus closed down Little Rock high schools for the year, to prevent black students from enrolling. But in August 1959, Little Rock high schools reopened integrated, after a federal court struck down the governor’s school-closing law.