Under escort from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, nine black students enter all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three weeks earlier, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had surrounded the school with National Guard troops to prevent its federal court-ordered racial integration. After a tense standoff, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent 1,000 army paratroopers to Little Rock to enforce the court order.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in educational facilities was unconstitutional. Five days later, the Little Rock School Board issued a statement saying it would comply with the decision when the Supreme Court outlined the method and time frame in which desegregation should be implemented.
Arkansas was at the time among the more progressive Southern states in regard to racial issues. The University of Arkansas School of Law was integrated in 1949, and the Little Rock Public Library in 1951. Even before the Supreme Court ordered integration to proceed “with all deliberate speed,” the Little Rock School Board in 1955 unanimously adopted a plan of integration to begin in 1957 at the high school level. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit, arguing the plan was too gradual, but a federal judge dismissed the suit, saying that the school board was acting in “utmost good faith.” Meanwhile, Little Rock’s public buses were desegregated. By 1957, seven out of Arkansas’ eight state universities were integrated.
In the spring of 1957, there were 517 black students who lived in the Central High School district. Eighty expressed an interest in attending Central in the fall, and they were interviewed by the Little Rock School Board, which narrowed down the number of candidates to 17. Eight of those students later decided to remain at all-black Horace Mann High School, leaving the “Little Rock Nine” to forge their way into Little Rock’s premier high school.
In August 1957, the newly formed Mother’s League of Central High School won a temporary injunction from the county chancellor to block integration of the school, charging that it “could lead to violence.” Federal District Judge Ronald Davies nullified the injunction on August 30. On September 2, Governor Orval Faubus—a staunch segregationist—called out the Arkansas National Guard to surround Central High School and prevent integration, ostensibly to prevent the bloodshed he claimed desegregation would cause. The next day, Judge Davies ordered integrated classes to begin on September 4.
That morning, 100 armed National Guard troops encircled Central High School. A mob of 400 white civilians gathered and turned ugly when the black students began to arrive, shouting racial epithets and threatening the teenagers with violence. The National Guard troops refused to let the black students pass and used their clubs to control the crowd. One of the nine, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, was surrounded by the mob, which threatened to lynch her. She was finally led to safety by a sympathetic white woman.