By MURPHY BROWNE
On September 24, 1957, nine African-American students made history when they integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The teenagers, Minnijean Brown (born in 1941); Elizabeth Eckford (1941), Ernest Green (1941), Gloria Ray (1942), Thelma Mothershed (1940), Melba Pattillo (1941), Terrence Roberts (1941), Jefferson Thomas (1942-2010) and Carlotta Walls (1942) would become known as the “Little Rock Nine”. Their integration of Central High School followed a month of drama, heartache and trauma.
The events that led up to September 24, 1957 began in Topeka, Kansas, in 1951 when an African-American father, Oliver Brown, challenged the Topeka, Kansas School Board in court on behalf of his eight-year-old daughter, Linda Brown. Linda, who was in the third grade, had to walk one mile through a dangerous railroad switchyard to get to her segregated elementary school when a White elementary school was a few blocks away from her home.
Brown tried to enroll his daughter in the White elementary school, but the principal of the school refused to enroll the child. Brown appealed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for help and a class action lawsuit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was launched when 13 other African-American parents on behalf of their 20 children joined Brown and the NAACP requested an injunction to forbid the segregation of Topeka’s public schools.
The case eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court with 200 plaintiffs from five states – Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington. Three years later, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483. The decision declared all laws establishing segregated schools to be unconstitutional and called for the desegregation of all schools throughout the nation.
The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision did not require desegregation of public schools by a specific time but after the decision the NAACP attempted to register African-American students in previously all-White schools in cities throughout the South.
Daisy Bates, president of the NAACP, was planning to sue the Little Rock School Board to force them to integrate their schools. On May 24, 1955 the Little Rock School Board agreed to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling with a plan of gradual integration. The Board planned to begin integration during the fall of the 1957-1958 school year, which would begin in September 1957.
By September 1957, the NAACP had registered nine African-American students, selected on the criteria of excellent grades and attendance, to attend Little Rock Central High School. There were 517 African-American students living in the Central High School district who were eligible to attend the school in the fall.
In the summer of 1957, however, a group of White women in Little Rock formed an organization, Mother’s League of Central High School, to ensure that no African-American students would be allowed to attend the school.
On August 27, 1957, the Mother’s League secretary, Mary Thomason, filed a lawsuit to prevent African-American students from entering the school. When the legal maneuver was unsuccessful, the good ladies, along with their relatives and friends, resorted to violence to prevent the integration of Central High School.
The action began on the morning of September 4, 1957, when Elizabeth Eckford arrived at the school on her own. Eckford’s family did not own a telephone and she had not been informed that the other eight students planned to arrive as a group accompanied by the president of the Arkansas NAACP, Daisy Bates.
Eckford was a 15-year-old student on September 4, 1957 when a photograph of her surrounded by a snarling White mob made history. The National Guard troops, at gunpoint, under orders of Governor Orval Faubus, had just prevented Eckford from entering the school grounds, when a White mob descended on the obviously terrified child.
Right on Eckford’s heels is the unforgettable image of a White girl, her face distorted with hate, mouth wide open, spitting racist venom. The infamous photograph has been recognized as one of the most important photographs of the 20th Century by the Associated Press and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Another photograph from that horrific period which has the dubious honour of being part of a list of “the most important photographs of the 20th Century” is one of Alex Wilson, an African-American reporter covering the story of the attempt to integrate Little Rock Central High School, being brutalized by a White mob.
Wilmer Counts, a White photographer whose work documented the Little Rock trauma for posterity, blended in with the crowd and photographed not only the terror to which Eckford was subjected on September 4 but also the brutal and cowardly assault of Wilson on September 23, 1957. Unlike Counts, whose White skin protected him from being terrorized and brutalized by the mob, Wilson and other African-American journalists were identifiable and vulnerable.
When the mob descended, shouting, “Run n_ _ _ er run”, Wilson refused to follow the other African-American journalists who fled. He calmly let the howling White mob know: “I fought for my country in the war and I’m not running from you.” He suffered for his brave stand. Nattily dressed and topped by his trademark fedora, he continued walking in dignity even after he was thrown to the ground several times by members of the vicious and cowardly mob.
Wilson never recovered from the brutal assault. This man, who as editor-in-chief of the African-American newspaper Tri-State Defender in Memphis, Tennessee, had traveled to Little Rock to cover the story of the nine students who put their lives on the line to integrate Central High School, paid with his life. Wilson suffered neurological damage as a result of the abuse and died at the age of 50 on October 11, 1960.
Terrence Roberts, another member of the Little Rock Nine, spoke about his experiences in school where there were no cameras to capture images of the vicious attacks he and his classmates suffered at the hands of White students and the racism from teachers:
“They did everything you could possibly think of that one human being might do to another.”
Roberts was hit on the side of the head with a combination lock in the gymnasium locker room so hard it drove him to his knees. The attack left him stunned and bleeding from the head.
In a recent article published in the Christian Science Monitor, Melba Patillo-Beals wrote: “I am one of the Little Rock Nine, one of the teenagers who integrated all-White Central High School in 1957. We sparked such a national firestorm that President Eisenhower summoned the Army to guard us as we entered the school amid a mob threatening to lynch us. We were nine Black kids joining 1,900 White students – and they weren’t mounting any welcome wagon for us.
“As a high school sophomore, I suddenly had a bounty on my head: The local White citizens’ council offered $10,000 for me dead; $5,000 alive. As a result, I was rushed to the airport by my family and ushered onto a plane bound for California.”
Each member of the Little Rock Nine persevered in spite of the daily abuse to which they were subjected and triumphed by graduating from high school, advancing to post-secondary education and fulfilling careers.
Sadly, on September 5, 2010, the youngest male member of the Little Rock Nine, Jefferson Thomas, who suffered from pancreatic cancer, transitioned to join the ancestors just two weeks shy of his 68th birthday.
On September 6, 2010, the White House released a statement by President Barack Obama in which he said: “Our nation owes Mr. Thomas a debt of gratitude for the stand he took half a century ago, and the leadership he showed in the decades since. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”