Civil Rights Milestone: 'Little Rock 9' At 60
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A milestone in the nation's civil rights struggle is being commemorated today in Little Rock, Ark. It has been 60 years since nine African-American students escorted by federal troops walked into all-white Little Rock Central High School. It was one of the first tests of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling Brown versus the Board of Education, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Little Rock. Good morning, Debbie.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.
KELLY: So let's go back in time to this moment. This was September, 1957.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate. Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate.
KELLY: And, Debbie, remind us what happened when those nine black students enrolled at Central High.
ELLIOTT: Well, the segregationist governor at the time, Orval Faubus, called up the state's National Guard to block them from attending, and the school became this flashpoint in the nation's battle over integration. You know, the whole world was watching as these angry and sometimes violent white mobs were yelling and spitting on the black teens. It was a real brutal display of how far a state would go to preserve, you know, the Jim Crow laws in the south and in some ways was the first test of the federal government's resolve to live up to that Brown versus the Board of Education ruling that all Americans deserved an equal opportunity at education.
So eventually, President Eisenhower federalized the guard. He sent in army paratroopers to escort the students into Central High. And what followed was an incredibly tough year for these black teenagers. The group was tormented by both their classmates and teachers. Yet they remained. They stuck it out, establishing themselves as pioneers of school integration in this country. And they became known, you know, forever more as the Little Rock Nine.
KELLY: The Little Rock Nine. Now, of those nine, eight are still alive. And I gather they'll be back at Central High School today. What's going to be happening?
ELLIOTT: Right. It's a reunion of sorts. They're now in their 70s. They will be in the school auditorium for a ceremony. President - former President Bill Clinton will be speaking. He, of course, an Arkansas native and former governor here, and as president, he had signed legislation marking Central High as a national historic site. There have been activities going on for the past week sort of honoring the legacy of the Little Rock Nine. Last night, at a interfaith service, one of the speakers was Erin Farmer (ph), who is a young black woman who is now the student body president at Central High School. And she spoke of walking a path made way by the Little Rock Nine. Earlier, Ernest Green, one of the group, reflected on what it was like for them to be together now 60 years later.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ERNEST GREEN: I think I speak for everybody that we're proud to be the Little Rock Nine and friends forever. And that club was formed - we had a short membership opportunity.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A short list.
GREEN: You had to be there on the 4 of September to join us. And on the 25, it was sealed so...
GREEN: We are a group forever united.
KELLY: And, Debbie, just real quick, walk us forward to today and what the sense is in Little Rock of what's changed, what hasn't.
ELLIOTT: Well, you know, everybody is talking about the work not being over. The theme of the event is Reflections on Progress, but there has been a bit of a backlash from parents and others who say Little Rock schools have now resegregated 60 years later. And that is something that people need to turn their attention to.
KELLY: All right. That's NPR's Debbie Elliott reporting from Little Rock. Thanks a lot.
ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.