Back in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson declared that state sponsored segregation was constitutional and added the phrase ‘separate but equal’ into the country’s vernacular. But this ruling never took into account the intangibles associated with the notion of how ‘separate but equal’ would resonate with the people. This practice was upheld until 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and deemed 'separate but equal' to be unconstitutional. As a result, schools in the South were to be fully desegregated – something that met with much opposition.
In Little Rock, the superintendent of schools wasn’t quite ready for desegregation and requested more time to gradually integrate students. By 1957, the NAACP registered nine black students to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High. Dubbed the Little Rock Nine, these students were selected on the criteria of excellent grades and attendance. Needless to say, their very presence was met with much resistance. Governor Orval Faubus defied the court’s ruling and deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the Little Rock Nine from entering the school. This drew the attention of the nation along with President Eisenhower who had to step in. By the end of September 1957, the Nine made it into the school for what can be described as a hellish year. They were harassed, spit on and taunted by other students. One girl even had acid thrown on her.
|The Little Rock Nine via|
Governor Faubus was still unhappy and petitioned to postpone desegregation until 1961, saying that the very act was creating a culture of violence. In spite of all of his attempts, Cooper v. Aaron ruled that the Supreme Court’s decision stood and each state could not make their own laws regarding desegregation - no matter HOW much they disagreed with them.
Today, the school still functions as part of the Little Rock School District, and is now a National Historic Site that houses a Civil Rights Museum, administered in partnership with the National Park Service, to commemorate the events of 1957. We didn’t have a chance to step inside the school, but just being there made me reflect on how much change happened on the very steps of the school.
|President Clinton honoring the Little Rock Nine in 1997 - via|