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Last Updated: Monday, 24 September 2007, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Legacy of the Little Rock Nine
Former President Bill Clinton will be in the Arkansas city of Little Rock on Tuesday to mark the experiences of a group of black students in 1957. The BBC's Nick Bryant examines events that still grip the American psyche.

Members of the 101st Airborne Division take up positions at Central High
Federal troops were dispatched to Little Rock's Central High
The Little Rock crisis of September 1957 pitted nine black schoolchildren against the brute force of southern racism, in one of the most climactic struggles of the civil rights era.

It came to symbolise not just the intransigence of white segregationists hell-bent on upholding their long-cherished "southern way of life" - as the region's system of racial apartheid was euphemistically known - but the willingness of young black activists to put their lives on the line to win freedom.

This three-week drama started on 4 September 1957, when a 15-year-old black schoolgirl named Elizabeth Eckford arrived at the gates of Little Rock's all-white Central High School.

17 May 1954: Supreme Court outlaws school segregation in Brown v the Board of Education
1 Dec 1955: Black woman challenges race law
5 Dec 1955: Black people boycott Montgomery buses
5 Mar 1956: US court victory for black students
22 Mar 1956: Martin Luther King convicted for bus boycott
25 Sep 1957: Troops end Little Rock school crisis
12 Aug 1959: Uproar as black students attend Little Rock
Like her eight cohorts, she was intent on becoming the latest beneficiary of the famed Brown ruling, the US Supreme Court decision three years earlier which paved the way for the integration of southern schools.

On reaching the school gates, she was blocked by a member of the Arkansas National Guard, carrying an M-1 rifle. He, like his fellow guardsmen, had been stationed there by the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, as part of the campaign of "massive resistance" mounted across the south in defiance of the Brown ruling.

Daring to dream

The stand-off on the streets of Little Rock quickly escalated into the most tumultuous showdown between a state and the federal government since the aftermath of the Civil War.

Terrance Roberts
Terrance Roberts, one of the Nine, became a respected psychologist
The Little Rock Nine, as the group of schoolchildren became popularly known, had grown up in a region where the separation of the races was strictly regulated from the cradle to the grave.

Blacks were born in segregated hospitals and buried in segregated cemeteries. "Whites only" signs adorned restaurants, lunch counters, public toilets, swimming pools and water fountains.

Segregation was an idea carried to absurdity. In southern courtrooms, whites and blacks took oaths on separate bibles. In many southern hospitals, "white ambulances" were not allowed to come to the aid of black patients, however critical their condition. In North Carolina, it was illegal for a white student to use a textbook touched by black hands.

But the Little Rock Nine had also grown up in a post-war era in which:

  • segregation was increasingly discredited, both morally and intellectually

  • previously little-known young preachers, like the Martin Luther King, had started hammering at the walls of prejudice

  • black voters, especially in key northern battleground states like Illinois, Michigan and New York, were asserting themselves politically

Increasingly, blacks were no longer willing to be treated as second class citizens. They were daring to dream.

Dwight D Eisenhower
Eisenhower dealt a blow to the campaign of "massive resistance"
So, on 23 September, Elizabeth Eckford and her friends tried once more to gain entry to Central High. As ever, an unruly mob lay in wait, which turned ugly when they mistook a group of black journalists for the Little Rock Nine.

In the maelstrom of unchecked violence, the students slipped through a side door, and at 8.45 that morning the American flag was hoisted for the first time over an integrated Central High.


This experiment in integrated education lasted precisely three hours and 13 minutes. So gruesome was the violence outside that the city's reform-minded mayor ordered the black pupils' removal. He was afraid they were about to be lynched.

This proved the decisive moment in the whole confrontation, for it brought about the speedy intervention of the federal government.

On his way to the golf course when he learned about the riot, President Dwight Eisenhower decided he had no choice but to act. After all, the federal courts were being flagrantly disregarded.

Troops escort the Little Rock Nine
Federal troops escorted the Little Rock Nine into the school
Within hours, the former supreme allied commander dispatched 1,000 paratroopers from the army's 101st Airborne - the famed Screaming Eagles.

It was the first time that federal troops had been dispatched to the south since Reconstruction, the troubled period in the aftermath of the Civil War. It was also the first time in the 20th Century that the US government had used military force to compel equal treatment for blacks.

Soon army jeeps were thundering through Little Rock carrying the Little Rock Nine to class.

This being the first civil rights crisis of the television age, disturbing pictures showing the spite and ugliness of southern racism were broadcast into people's living rooms. This created a groundswell of sympathy and hastened the quickening tempo of racial reform.

President Bill Clinton, himself a former Governor of Arkansas, understood its defining importance
By introducing troops, President Eisenhower also dealt a crushing blow to the campaign of "massive resistance" - an important lesson lost on his successor, John F Kennedy, who preferred appeasement in his dealings with recalcitrant southern governors.

President Bill Clinton, himself a former governor of Arkansas, more fully understood its defining importance. He returned to Little Rock on the 40th anniversary 10 years ago, to celebrate the students "who climbed these steps, passed through this door and moved our nation."

Such acts of public reconciliation helped cement his reputation among black voters, his most loyal constituency.

To this day, the Little Rock crisis has a powerful hold on the American psyche. Only three months ago, the US Supreme Court decided to limit the use of race by public school districts in determining the school students can attend.

The 5-4 ruling had the effect of rejecting affirmative action programmes designed to engineer more racially mixed classrooms. Opponents of the ruling complained it assaulted not just the Brown ruling but the spirit of the Little Rock Nine.

The members of that illustrious group are now in their mid-60s - heroes of the struggle for black equality, who braved hatred, violence and possible death to help prick the conscience of a nation.

Protesters highlight US race row
21 Sep 07 |  Americas

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