It was on this day in 1957 that nine black teenagers, six girls and three boys, entered Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, escorted by members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
At the time, Little Rock was considered a relatively liberal southern city. There was no segregation on buses or in libraries or parks. But schools were still segregated three years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating integrated classrooms. Teachers at the all-black schools began handing out applications to attend the all-white Central High School, considered one of the best high schools in the state. The list of applicants was narrowed down to 17 of the very best black students in the district, and eight of those changed their mind at the last minute, leaving nine students total. They became known as the Little Rock Nine.
One of those students, Minnijean Brown, remembers picking out her best outfit for the first day of classes that year. She wasn’t too worried. She said, “I figured, ‘I’m a nice person. Once they get to know me, they’ll see I’m OK. We’ll be friends.’” But Little Rock Nine never even got close to the school building that first day. A mob of segregationist white students and parents surrounded the school.
One of the nine students was chased by the mob until a white woman helped her onto a city bus. The nine black students tried twice to enter the building, and each time the crowd grew more threatening, shouting obscenities and spitting at the students. Elizabeth Eckford said that when she got home she was able to wring the spittle from her dress.
The second failed attempt to enter the school was captured by television cameras, and Americans across the country were shocked to see how these nine students were being treated not only by a racist mob but also by the Arkansas National Guard, who had been ordered to prevent their entry by the Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus.
So on this day in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students up the front steps and into their classrooms. The students were shown on national television walking into the school, with stern looks on their faces, their heads held high, as the mob stood all around them.
The 101st Airborne Division remained in the school for the rest of the year, but the nine students were still subjected to taunts and humiliation. One of the girls said that she never went to the bathroom at school her entire first year, because the soldiers who would have protected her couldn’t accompany her, and it would have been too dangerous. One of the nine had acid thrown in her face. Another was cut with broken glass. Another was kicked down the stairs. Their families received death threats.
After the experience of that school year, most of the nine tried to keep a low profile. Only one of them became a civil rights activist. The others became an accountant, a corporate vice president, a social worker, a real estate agent, a psychologist, a teacher; two became homemakers. Most of them didn’t even tell their children what they’d gone through. Their children had to find out about it in history class. All nine of them were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1998.