U.S. Army Troops Enforce Desegregation of Arkansas High School
It was one of the most shameful sights in American history. Nine courageous though frightened African American students were blocked from entering the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School by Arkansas National Guard troops, sent by segregationist Governor Orval Faubus. It was Sept. 4, 1957, and a vicious, jeering mob taunted the students and cheered on the troops. Pictures of this ugly confrontation appeared in newspapers all across the country, exposing the dark underbelly of America’s racism for all to see.
The historic Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, handed down on May 17, 1954, ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional—setting the stage for the Little Rock confrontation. The Little Rock School Board agreed on May 24, 1955, to integrate its schools in compliance with the Supreme Court decision, with the first African American students scheduled to be admitted in the fall of 1957. That’s when the racists, segregationists and their governor stepped in and tried to block the “Little Rock Nine.”
When the governor refused to obey a court injunction ordering the withdrawal of the Arkansas National Guard, the federal government stepped in. On Sept. 24, 1957, President Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to ensure that the law was obeyed and the school desegregated. The president also federalized the Arkansas National Guard, removing Governor Faubus’s control over them.
These two copyrighted newspaper articles, published on the day the U.S. Army arrived in Little Rock, describe the situation at the Little Rock Central High School. The first describes four African American newsmen who were attacked by the mob outside the school, and the second gives some details of what was happening inside the school.
These two articles were published by the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on Sept. 24, 1957:
Attack Is Described by Negro Newsman
Acton Helped Students to Enter, He Says
Editors: The following is a first-person account of the initial attack on four Negro adults which set off the bloody violence at Central High School in Little Rock today. The writer is James L. Hicks, managing editor of the New York Amsterdam News who was one of the four.
By James L. Hicks
Little Rock, Ark., Sept. 23 (AP)—The appearance of four of us Negro newspapermen helped the Negro students get into Central High School today—but we honestly didn’t plan it that way.
When I got to Little Rock from New York last night I went straight to the home of Mrs. L. C. Bates, local president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
I met Alex Wilson of the Memphis Tri-State Defender and Moses Newsom of the Afro-American papers from Baltimore. We hired Early Davy, a Little Rock commercial photographer, to make pictures for us today.
Looked at Us Hard
It was agreed that the children would assemble at Mrs. Bates’ house at 8 o’clock this morning and go to school together.
This morning we showed up and intended to accompany the kids to the school but Mrs. Bates wouldn’t agree to it, saying it would cause too much attraction for the four of us to be with them.
We said, “Well, let us get there first.”
In Wilson’s car we drove to within two blocks of the school. It was about 8:30 a.m. by this time. The four of us started to walk up the hill to the school. On the way up there we met quite a few groups of people but no one said anything, just looked at us hard.
‘This Is Our School’
The big mob at the corner of the school ground caught sight of us approaching and someone said, “Here come the niggers.” They rushed at us. We stopped and a man told us, “Go back. You’re not coming in here. This is our school and we’re not letting any niggers in.”
I told him we were not trying to get into school, that we were newsmen. One man said, “They’re niggers. Let’s kill ‘em.”
A man with a rock in his hand swung at Wilson. Another clouted me behind the ear. We started backing up. Then Wilson was knocked down and got kicked. We started to run. The mob yelled to those we had passed to catch us.
Davy was tripped and his camera smashed. He tried to crawl up a bank away from the men hitting him but two dragged him back. I ran on and saw Newsom and we both ran two more blocks and saw a cop come along on a motorcycle. We headed for him.
A white man kicked Newsom in the back in sight of the policeman and the cop told him, “Let that boy alone.”
A one-armed man was in front of the mob and kept urging them after us. When we rounded a corner the mob stopped but the one-armed man kept coming. We stopped and started back toward him. He yelled for help and then retreated.
Later we heard that while this was going on the kids slipped into the school safely.
Varying Reports Given by Little Rock Students
Negro Girl Repeats 28th Psalm When Scared
By Adren Cooper
Little Rock, Sept. 23 (AP)—On the steps of Little Rock Central high school: “The Lord is my strength and my shield…”
“I thought I was going to be scared,” said Melba Pattillo [Beals], a plump, exuberant 15-year-old Negro girl, “but I wasn’t. Whenever I got scared, I just kept repeating the 28th Psalm.”
She smiled. The taunts?
“They bother me not,” she said, switching to the teenaged vernacular. Melba said that some white students volunteered to help her with her lessons, and, out of three classes, only three or four white students walked out.
Such reports were in sharp contrast to those given early in the day by Sylvia Jones, a white girl who “signed out” about 10 a.m. “Everybody’s walking out,” said Sylvia. “There were 25 lined up to sign out when I got there.”
Nine Negroes walked swiftly through the side entrance of the school and then drew a crowd of students as they strolled to the main office to register. There was some confusion as students started running up and down the halls. Some white students disrupted classes with their yells when they spotted the Negroes. “They shouted,” said Melba. “Well, they shouted words I can’t repeat.”
A small, shy 16-year-old Negro student, Thelma Mothershed, walked into a biology class and sat in her assigned seat in a back row. “A white girl smiled at me,” Thelma said. “I didn’t have any trouble.”
Melba, she later told Associated Press reporter Sy Ramsey, was walking down the corridor when “A girl hit me; I said thank you very much; she expected me to stop and fight. It was the only time anybody touched me.”
“I’m through.” Patrolman Tommy Dunaway took off his badge and tossed it on the street in front of the school from which he graduated in 1948. He told AP newsman Clifton Wells: “I’ve got a lot of friends here in Little Rock and I want to keep them.”
“Some of the boys have had knives for a long time,” said Howard Cooper, 15-year-old white student. “I didn’t see anybody with a knife today. My buddy said it would be bad for the school if we went out. There were 15 empty seats in my English class and about 20 students present. We stayed.”
“No, it didn’t surprise me,” said Jefferson Thomas, a quiet Negro 10th-grader. Some white students volunteered to help me with my lessons. I was a little nervous; it’s a new school.”
“All you had to do was sign your name and write ‘integration’ [in order to sign out and leave the school],” said a slim, blond white student. “They kept making out new sheets for the kids to sign out: they kept coming.” Later, she asked her mother: “Can I tell the man my name?” “No, dear, I’m sorry, you don’t know what he’s going to write.”
“There was some shoving, but nothing really happened,” said Terrence Roberts, 15-year-old Negro. Said young Terrence: “A boy told me that he was glad to see me. Was it sarcastic? Well, he sounded friendly.”
A white student: “We shouted and shouted; we had a substitute teacher and we sorta took advantage of her; some rooms were quiet.”
Said Sylvia: “Sure, we could hear the people outside. They were hollering…well, bad things.”
Three white boys, handcuffed together, were brought out of the school. A man recognized one boy. “That’s my nephew; my boy came out a while ago, and that’s my nephew. I’m mighty proud of both of them.” The three boys were put into a squad car and driven away.
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