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Little Rock Nine

The State of Arkansas was in little mood to abide by the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case. When nine African American students enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, the Governor, Orval Faubus, decided to act.

On 4 September, the first day of classes, he called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the African American students’ entry into the high school, claiming this action was for the students’ own protection.

The nine students were undeterred, which is probably not surprising since they were all recruited and vetted by Daisy Gaston Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP and co-publisher of the Arkansas State Press, an influential African American newspaper.

In the weeks prior to the start of the new school year, the students participated in intensive counselling sessions guiding them on what to expect once classes began and how to respond to anticipated hostile situations. The group quickly became famous as the Little Rock Nine.

The plan had been for Bates to drive all the students to school together, but the family of one of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, did not have a telephone and so was unaware of the plans Instead, she arrived at school alone – to the screams and abuse of her fellow students.

Eckford’s path was stopped by the National Guard, but the dramatic scene of her arrival was captured by a photographer and circulated widely across the US and abroad. In this one photograph, the dispute was framed.

Over the following weeks, huge pressure was put on Governor Faubus to drop his resistance. As federal judge Ronald Davies began legal proceedings, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried quieter diplomacy to encourage Faubus to withdraw the National Guard and abide by the law.

Governor Faubus was having none of it and on 20 September Judge Davies ordered the Guard removed and the Little Rock Police Department took over to maintain order. The police escorted the nine African American students into the school a few days later, but they had to endure 1,000 angry white protesters gathered outside. As a riot unfolded, the police removed the nine students.

Eisenhower finally felt compelled to act and the following day sent in 1,200 members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division from neighbouring Kentucky to oversee 10,000 National Guardsmen on duty. Escorted by the troops, the Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of classes on 25 September.

The students were now in, but they continued to face a torrid time. Melba Patillo was kicked, beaten and had acid thrown in her face. Gloria Ray was pushed down a flight of stairs, while Minnijean Brown was expelled from in February 1958 for retaliating against the attacks. All nine were barred from participating in extracurricular activities.

Still Faubus would not give up. In September 1958, one year after Central High was integrated, he closed all of Little Rock’s high schools for the entire year, pending a public vote, to prevent African American attendance. The citizens of Little Rock voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration and the schools remained closed.

But despite all this, the Little Rock Nine refused to lose hope and after graduating, many went on to have distinguished careers and their achievements and bravery were not forgotten.

In 1999, President Clinton awarded each with the Congressional Gold Medal and all nine received personal invitations to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.