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Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock Central High School is a powerful reminder of racial segregation in the United States and of the courage required to integrate the nation's public schools. Completed in 1927, the school is a typical Gothic Revival style building, though its role in history is anything but typical. Today, visitors can tour a key site in the struggle for racial equality to learn about the “Little Rock Nine” and the extraordinary story of what it took to integrate Little Rock Central High School and desegregate public education in the United States.
Although Reconstruction-era amendments to the United States Constitution explicitly extended equality under law to African Americans, equality was not a reality of everyday life because of organized segregationist policies. In 1954, a landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas declared that State laws that established separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. This ruling overturned earlier Supreme Court decisions going back to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson, setting the stage for widespread social change through educational reform. In Brown, the court held that, in the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Undoing an ingrained system formed on a racist foundation involved a major change in attitudes, customs and traditions. Sensing that a deadline was imperative to force this change, the Supreme Court called for integrating education with “all deliberate speed.”
One Supreme Court case could not instantly change racist thinking and practices. “All deliberate speed” took on wildly different meanings as some southern States actively resisted the creation of integrated educational systems. In Little Rock, the school board called for the gradual integration of its schools beginning with the 1957-1958 school year. As the summer of 1957 ended, it appeared that the desegregation of all-white Central High School would be confrontational. Nine black students decided to attend Central rather than continuing at what had been the all-black Horace Mann High School. Thelma Mothershed Wair, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, and Melba Pattillo Beals placed themselves and their families on the front line in the struggle for civil rights in America by choosing to integrate Central High School.
Realizing that integration was increasingly likely, a number of groups began to fight against the integration of Central. On August 29, 1957, two white-led groups, the Capitol Citizens’ Council and the Mothers’ League of Little Rock Central High School, went to court and were able to prevent the implementation of the plan for integration. Judge Ronald N. Davis overturned this decision in Federal court the next day. Not long after, the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, claimed that tensions over the possibility of integration and the potential for violence in Little Rock were beyond the ability of the local authorities to control. On September 2, he ordered the Arkansas National Guard into the city. Two days later the school year began and the nine black students attempted to enter Central High School, but the National Guardsmen turned them away. Little Rock was in crisis and the nation watched.
Despite the willingness of the local authorities to enforce the Federal judgment requiring the immediate enrollment of the nine black students at Central High School, Governor Faubus used his authority to command the National Guard troops to prevent this from happening. Judge Davis soon ordered the governor and leading guardsmen to stand down and permit the students to attend school. On September 23, guarded by State and local police, the “Little Rock Nine” attended their first classes at Central High School, but rioting outside cut their first school day short. The following day the mayor of Little Rock urgently requested assistance from President Eisenhower to prevent a rumored gathering of white supremacists from occurring. Eisenhower responded immediately by taking the extraordinary step of assuming Federal control of the State’s militia. For the first time since the 1860s, the threat of violence was so great that the Federal Government was required to enforce the law for a State. Ordered by President Eisenhower, the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army escorted the students to their first full day of school, September 25, 1957. These troops stayed at the school for the remainder of the school year guarding the students as they moved between classes. Despite this apparent success, Governor Faubus closed all public high schools in the City of Little Rock for the 1958 to 1959 school year.
The significance of Little Rock Central High School is both local and national. Locally what happened there chronicles the movement to integrate the Little Rock school system but the integration of the school was also a milestone nationally in the Civil Rights Movement. Above all, the actions of the Federal Government in enforcing the Brown decision showed that in the long struggle for civil rights, the rule of law would be maintained by any means necessary, including having the Executive Branch step in to support a decision of the US Supreme Court by force. In 2007, Federal monitoring of the school districts in Little Rock ceased after the settlement of lawsuits related to the actions of 1957 and the satisfying of the court that race was no longer an obstacle to obtaining education.
Visitors to Little Rock High School National Historic Site can immerse themselves in the powerful story of the integration of public education in the United States. The school is still an operating high school, so visitors cannot tour it on their own. Rangers lead guided tours of the high school by advance reservation for groups of 10 or more. The visitor center offers permanent interactive exhibits, audio visual programs, and the opportunity to listen to recorded oral histories. Rangers conduct bicycle tours of Little Rock to interpret the story of the Civil Rights Movement in the city. There are also special events.