Shocking and inspiring: the story of the Little Rock Nine and the integration of Central High School


The story of fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford and eight other African-American teenagers still takes my breath away, even though I lived through it on live television. I relearned the story last week on a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas, Central High School, the site in 1957 of ugly, beautiful and inspiring events that changed America.

Returning to Los Angeles I discovered that my friends of baby boomer and subsequent generations knew nothing about what happened outside Central High School on September 4, 1957. Like the story of the Israelites flight from Egypt and the story of the first Thanksgiving, the Central High School story merits retelling every year.

After the US Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools violated the Constitution, the Little Rock School Board developed a plan to gradually integrate city schools, starting by admitting nine African-American students to prestigious—and white only—Central High School. On the eve of the first day of school, September 3, 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered troops of the Arkansas National Guard to Little Rock to prevent the nine children from entering the school.

Elizabeth Eckford was one of the nine. She took a bus that dropped her a block from the school, and from there walked with unimaginable grace and courage (Will Counts’s photo above) through a mob of screaming, spitting adults. She tried to enter the campus twice, only to be turned away both times by National Guard troops. She then worked her way back through the angry mob of people to a bus bench at the end of the block. She was eventually able to board a city bus, and went to her mother’s workplace.

Eckford later said, “I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob—someone who maybe would 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.” 

Elizabeth and the rest of the Little Rock Nine finally were able to start classes at Central three weeks later, after President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to protect and escort them.

For more on the story check out the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History.

Central High School today is half white-half black. It is also a National Historic Site with a fascinating, shaming, inspiring Visitor Center run by the U.S. National Park Service. It’s worth a trip.



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One Response to “Shocking and inspiring: the story of the Little Rock Nine and the integration of Central High School”

  1. janpchapman Says:

    We also visited Little Rock a couple of years ago, and even though that was not the purpose of our trip (we were actually headed to Oxford, Mississippi to visit William Faulkner’s home), that is the most potent memory for me. Seeing that magnificent school and suddenly realizing the courage it must have taken to go to school every day, visiting the museum and learning the actual time line of events is a memory that is going to stay with me forever. Thanks for reminding everyone.

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