NBC's Lester Holt discusses the impact of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education on Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Little Rock Nine were the first black students to attend the all white school.
State v. Federal Government: Little Rock, Arkansas
LESTER HOLT, reporting:
In 1957, three years after Brown, schools in the south were still largely segregated. But in September of that year, nine black teenagers would attempt to enroll in a white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Their action would spark one of the pivotal battles of the Civil Rights movement and would bring the power of the presidency and the federal government into the dispute.
Archival footage, CROWD: Two, four, six, eight. We don’t want to integrate.
Harvard Law School, Mr. CHARLES J. OGLETREE Jr.: The Brown decision was decided in 1954, and people thought the battle was won. Well, it was just beginning, because the resistance to integration was massive.
HOLT: The Brown versus Board of Education ruling decreed that the integration of public schools be implemented with “all deliberate speed.” The ambiguity of that phrase provided states that practiced segregation with an excuse to take their time. The white community in Little Rock overwhelmingly opposed change. And after mass protest, Governor Orval Faubus refused to carry out a plan to integrate.
Little Rock Nine, ERNEST GREEN: Labor Day evening the governor was on television indicating that he was calling out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent us from going to school.
HOLT: The governor said the troops were there to prevent violence and to protect life and property. Despite several attempts by the students to enter the school, they were turned away. Just weeks later, a federal judge ruled that Governor Faubus had illegally used the troops to prevent integration.
Governor ORVAL FAUBUS: Now that a federal court, however, has chosen to substitute its judgment for mine, as to how the peace and order should be preserved, I must temporarily at least abide.
GREEN: We went to school for half a day, I think on the 23rd of September, and that was when the mob looked as if they were going to break through the police barriers.
HOLT: When a mob outside learned the students were already inside, chaos ensued. The situation had become so out of control, that on September 24th, three weeks after the crisis began, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a thousand members of army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, and federalized the Arkansas National Guard.
President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: I have today issued an executive order directing the use of troops, under federal authority, to aid in the execution of federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas.
Mr. OGLETREE : It was a classic moment of the federal authority, president, confronting the local, state authority, the governor. And the governor was right, he had all sorts of support to continue segregation but President Eisenhower, to his credit, had the moral courage to say, ‘This has to end.’
President EISENHOWER: I could have spoken from Rhode Island, of where I had been staying recently. But I felt that, in speaking from the house of Lincoln, of Jackson and of Wilson, my words would better convey both the sadness I feel in the action I was compelled today to make. And the firmness with which I intend to pursue this course until the orders of the federal court at Little Rock can be executed without unlawful interference.
HOLT: The next day, September 25th, the black students returned to the school.
Governor FAUBUS: We are now an occupied territory.
GREEN: We had a jeep with soldiers and machine gun mount in front, a jeep, machine gun mount with soldiers in the back of the station wagon. We pulled up in front of Central High School. There was a cordon of soldiers that surrounded us, and we walked up the steps into Central High School. We certainly knew that anybody watching this, had to feel that the United States Government was going to support the rights of nine African American students to go to the school of their choice.
In a key event of the American civil rights movement, nine black students enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, testing a landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The court had mandated that all public schools in the country be integrated “with all deliberate speed” in its decision related to the groundbreaking case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.