On 55th anniversary of Little Rock event, we must continue fight for integration

By Brian Gilmore, September 23, 2012

Fifty-five years ago, nine African-American children wanted to get a good education in Little Rock, Ark. We should salute them today not just for integrating all-white Central High School but also for helping to tear down the old walls of racism.

These children, known as the “Little Rock Nine,” are worth mentioning by name as we celebrate the anniversary of their bravery: Minnijean Brown, Terrence Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls.

The story of the Little Rock Nine began with the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 ordering the desegregation of public education. Over the next three years, the city of Little Rock made plans to integrate their schools. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, however, had other ideas. When the school year began in the fall of 1957, he deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent any integration.

On Sept. 4, 1957, “The Little Rock Nine” arrived at Central High School only to find the Arkansas National Guard standing in their way. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund went to court and obtained an injunction preventing Faubus from stopping the nine students from entering school.

On Sept. 23, 1957, the students entered the school with police escorts, but due to an angry white mob out front and the threat of violence, the students were forced to go in through a side entrance. Because the situation was so unsafe, they were unable to remain in the school for the entire day.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to President Eisenhower seeking federal intervention in the civil rights fight. “This is a great opportunity for you to back up the longings and aspirations of millions of people of good will,” King wrote.

Woodrow Nilson Mann, mayor of Little Rock, also asked Eisenhower to protect the students with troops.

Eisenhower finally federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered members of the 101st Airborne to protect the students. For the remainder of the year, the troops escorted the students to each of their classes.

This was one of the major victories against America’s “Jim Crow” laws. In the years to follow, many other Americans, from all races and backgrounds, would fight racism in America and undo the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

Unfortunately, our schools today are increasingly being resegregated. According to a recent report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, “43 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of blacks attend intensely segregated schools (those with only 0-10 percent of white students) across the nation.” It added: “Fully 15 percent of black students and 14 percent of Latino students attend ‘apartheid schools’ across the nation, where whites make up 0 to 1 percent of the enrollment.”

So even as we celebrate the 55th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, we must recommit ourselves to tackling the issue of segregation. The Little Rock Nine would demand no less of us.

Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.