On this day in 1957, 1,000 troops secured Little Rock Central High, allowing nine black students to enter and attend school. It was a historic day in the Civil Rights movement not because it was the first school to desegregate, but because it was the first time federal intervention was used to do so.
When the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954, banning segregated public schools, it left up to individual states and communities the issue of how and when integration would proceed. Little Rock had approved a gradual approach; the high school would integrate first, then the middle schools, then elementary. But when the time came for black students to enroll in Central High, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus reneged on the deal, surrounding the school with National Guard troops on the first day of the year to protect people, he claimed, from the caravans of protestors on their way to Little Rock. In fact, the Guard denied entrance to the nine black students who attempted to enroll as a crowd of about 300 people gathered. Within days, the spectacle was over, but the Guard remained, napping on the school’s lawn and reading newspapers to pass the time. The approach that Southern moderates like William Faulkner had preached was quickly turning from “go slow” into “don’t go.”
More than two weeks passed before a federal injunction withdrew the National Guard from the school. When Little Rock police officers escorted the nine black students into school on the morning of September 23, crowds of protestors outside became so menacing that administrators had the students slip out a side entrance before noon.
And so two days later, President Eisenhower ordered the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division stationed in Kentucky to escort the nine black students back in — and ensure they were able to stay. By then, the national media attention on Little Rock had become intense, drawing massive crowds — although, as the school newspaper reminded students, the protestors represented less than 1 percent of the town’s population.
Of the “Little Rock Nine,” as the black students became known, only three graduated from Central High. Five finished their education elsewhere; one was expelled for responding to the constant harassments of her classmates, once by overturning a bowl of chili on a tormentor. (The bullies went largely unpunished.) All nine credited their parents for encouraging them to enroll — and attend class — despite intense scrutiny and racism.