September 25, 1957: Little Rock Central High School is integrated.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the monumental case Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal facilities are “inherently unequal”, setting down the legal foundation for the end of de jure segregation. The actual integration of schools, however, would not be achieved by a simple court ruling.
Three years after the Brown v. Board decision, nine black students (a group known as the Little Rock Nine) attempted to enroll in Central High after the Little Rock School District completed its plan for the integration of its schools. Although the school board of Little Rock agreed to comply with the decisions of the federal courts, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, reportedly a moderate who adopted a more hardline position to win the support of staunch segregationists, ordered the state National Guard to block the students from entering the high school; they were accompanied by crowds of protesters, who jeered the students as they attempted to attend school. Elizabeth Eckford (pictured in the bottom photograph in one of many iconic images of the Civil Rights movement), who was fifteen at the time, recalls a moment from the chaos:
I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.
Grace Lorch, a white teacher who attempted to protect Eckford from the crowd, later faced bomb threats and harassment because of her actions. Lorch was one of the two white individuals who attempted to help Eckford, the other being Benjamin Fine, a reporter for The New York Times.
Governor Faubus, when asked about the conflict between the state and Federal authorities, replied that he was not defying Federal court orders but merely “carrying out [his] obligation to preserve the peace”. The school remained blocked by troops until the mayor of Little Rock requested assistance from President Eisenhower, who placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal control and sent Army troops to escort the students to school (Executive Order 10730). On September 25, the Little Rock Nine were admitted to the high school. But even after their admittance, they faced a constant stream of verbal and even physical abuse – one girl had acid thrown in her face; another was expelled after fighting back against her abusers.