Sept. 23, 2022

The Little Rock Nine Take on School Segregation

The Little Rock Nine Take on School Segregation

September 23, 1957. Three years after the United States Supreme Court abolishes segregation in public schools, nine African American students attempt to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.


Cold Open

It’s 7:30 AM on September 4th, 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

A city bus rumbles through the early morning light. Sitting on board, her hands clasped tightly around the folder on her lap, is 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford. Elizabeth is excited and a little nervous because today is her first day of high school.

The bus rolls to a stop and as Elizabeth steps off into bright sunshine, she puts on a pair of sunglasses. Then she begins walking the two remaining blocks to the school entrance.

Soon, the fortress-like walls of Little Rock Central High School loom into view. Elizabeth tries to calm the butterflies in her stomach. She thinks about the Bible passage her mother read to her earlier this morning - an excerpt from the Book of Psalms: “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?

But as she gets closer to the school… Elizabeth hears raised voices coming from somewhere near the main entrance. When she turns a corner and steps onto school grounds, she is confronted by a barrier of armed soldiers, forming a picket line around the building.

Elizabeth hesitates, unsure where to go.

Further ahead, she sees the soldiers break ranks as a group of students approaches. Relieved, Elizabeth hurries toward the point where the soldiers are allowing children through. But when she reaches the gap… the soldiers suddenly close ranks again, obstructing her path. So Elizabeth turns and walks to a different point in the barricade.

But again, the soldiers block her way. Assuming she’s in the wrong place, Elizabeth hurries around to the school’s main entrance... where she comes face to face with a huge, baying mob. Hundreds of people are gathered across the road from the school, their faces contorted in anger. Elizabeth sees placards reading: “Race Mixing is Communism!” and hears chants of “two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!”

A shiver of dread shoots down Elizabeth’s spine. She realizes why the soldiers are gathered: they’re not here to protect her; they’re here to stop her from entering the school. Elizabeth spins on her heels and paces back toward the bus stop.

But it’s too late. The mob has spotted her. They start pursuing Elizabeth down the sidewalk, hurling racist abuse. Elizabeth sits down on a bench and stares straight ahead, trying to stay calm.

Reporters and photographers swarm around her, snapping pictures and scribbling in notepads. Elizabeth starts to tremble. Someone sits down next to her - a reporter. He leans over and whispers kindly in her ear: “Don’t let them see you cry.”

Elizabeth nods. But she can already feel the tears sliding down her cheeks.

After the US Supreme Court abolished racial segregation in schools in 1954, the Little Rock School District introduced a plan to integrate public schools in the city. The first facility to desegregate was Little Rock Central High School. But when Elizabeth Eckford and nine other African-American students turned up for their first day, they were prevented from entering the school by a racist mob and armed National Guardsmen. In the end, it will take an intervention from President Eisenhower himself to call off the National Guard and allow the students to enter Little Rock Central High on September 23rd, 1957. 


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 23rd, 1957: The Little Rock Nine Takes on School Segregation.

Act One: The Blossom Plan

It’s early September 1954; three years before the crisis at Little Rock Central High.

In Gibbs Elementary School in Little Rock, a heavy-set man with thick-framed spectacles addresses a classroom full of public-school teachers. Virgil T. Blossom is the superintendent of the Little Rock School District, the man responsible for implementing a recent Supreme Court ruling abolishing racial segregation in schools.

Over fifty years ago, the Supreme Court decreed that segregation was legal provided that facilities for Black and white people were equal. That ruling made it constitutional for African Americans to be barred from sharing the same public facilities as whites and established the legal doctrine of “separate but equal”.

But, recently, a man named Oliver Brown in Topeka, Kansas, filed a lawsuit against the local board of education for barring his daughter from attending a whites-only elementary school. The case went on to the Supreme Court, where it was judged that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” because segregated schools are “inherently unequal.”

Following Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka the onus fell on school districts across the country to implement plans for desegregation. But no guidelines were provided for how or when desegregation should be achieved. 

That’s what Virgil T. Blossom is speaking about today. Virgil is a straight-talking, law-abiding conservative. He doesn’t think integration is a good idea, but if the Supreme Court insists, then Virgil isn’t going to stand in the way.

But Virgil also believes these things shouldn't be rushed. Today, he is addressing a classroom full of African-American educators from Little Rock’s public schools, outlining his vision for desegregation in the district. He explains that integration willhappen, but not immediately and not comprehensively.

Murmurs of frustration ripple through the classroom.

Virgil removes his glasses and uses his tie to wipe away a smudge from one of the lenses. Then he clears his throat and says: “I’m going to tell you the facts of life, folks. Someday there will be, in all likelihood, colored teachers teaching white children, but it is my opinion that that will not come in your lifetime.”

A hand at the back of the classroom shoots up. Daisy Bates is the co-owner of theArkansas State Press, Little Rock’s leading African-American newspaper. Daisy is also president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP. She's also a vocal advocate for desegregation in schools. Virgil did not invite Daisy to this meeting, but she showed up anyway.

After Virgil acknowledges her, Daisy stands, primly straightening her jacket. She fixes Virgil with an uncompromising stare and states: “Mr. Blossom, what justification could you possibly have for obstructing the swift and complete implementation of the Supreme Court’s ruling?”

Virgil lets out an exasperated sigh. He tries to explain that he isn’t obstructing anything. He is merely exercising caution. He understands folks’ desire for change, but they must be patient.

Daisy retorts that Black people have been patient for too long. They’re tired of waiting for equality - and if Virgil and the School Board refuse to expedite desegregation, then Daisy isn’t going to give them a moment’s rest until they do.

True to her word, Daisy spends the next year relentlessly badgering Virgil at press conferences. She writes scathing op-eds lambasting the School Board and advocating for immediate, comprehensive desegregation.

Eventually, in May 1955, under pressure from Daisy and the NAACP, Virgil announces his new plan for desegregation in Little Rock. Integration will begin with Central High School in September 1957, before moving on to other schools. By 1963, Virgil intends to have all public schools in Little Rock fully desegregated.

But Daisy still isn’t happy. In order to please pro-segregation factions, Virgil’s plan includes several caveats designed to limit the impact of desegregation. Under his plan, students are allowed to transfer from any school in which their race is a minority and this will effectively keep education segregated because white students are unlikely to choose to attend any predominantly Black facility.

With the support of Daisy and the NAACP, a group of Black parents file a lawsuit against the School Board, arguing that these insincere attempts at desegregation are a violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling. But the judge sides with the School Board, and - despite her objections - Daisy ultimately agrees to help Virgil implement his plan.

In 1957, 200 students from local Black schools volunteer to participate in the desegregation of Central High. Daisy and other NAACP organizers sort through the applicants and reduce the number to seventeen. When Virgil explains to the volunteers that they will not be able to participate in extracurricular activities at Central High and they will likely suffer bullying and harassment, the list dwindles to just ten.

And as the summer vacation draws to a close, these ten brave students will prepare for their first day at a new school. They will iron their shirts and blouses. They will purchase school supplies and collect their textbooks. But meanwhile, powerful forces will conspire to obstruct their enrollment at Central High - and to preserve racial segregation in Little Rock.

Act Two: The First Day of School

It’s September 2nd, 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas; three weeks before the Little Rock Nine successfully enter Central High School.

Inside his mansion, the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, sits behind his desk preparing to deliver a televised address. When the red “ON AIR” signal lights up, the Governor speaks directly into the camera, saying: “Ahead of the arrival of ten Negro students at Central High School on Wednesday… I am calling out the Arkansas National Guard to maintain order and prevent blood in the streets.”

The camera light shut off and Faubus settles back in his chair. He removes a handkerchief from his pocket and mops sweat from his brow.

Over the last few months, resistance has been growing throughout Arkansas to the Supreme Court’s ruling against segregation in schools. Faubus is a Southern Democrat who takes a moderate position on racial politics. But he is concerned that his political opponents will endorse segregation and steal away the white supremacist vote.

So in order to better his chances for re-election, Faubus has decided to abandon his moderate stance and do everything he can to prevent Black students from entering Central High. And that’s why he’s calling out the National Guard: not to maintain order, but to maintain segregation.

Across town, NAACP leader Daisy Bates sits on her sofa watching the sitcom “I Love Lucy.” But she jolts to attention as Governor Faubus’s emergency bulletin interrupts the broadcast.

As Daisy listens to Faubus announce his intentions to deploy the National Guard at Central High, she grows worried. She suspects Faubus’ bulletin was a thinly-veiled threat - a warning to any supporters of desegregation to expect forceful opposition.

But Daisy is accustomed to such intimidation. Since taking a prominent role in the desegregation of Little Rock’s schools, Daisy has become a target for racist abuse. Just days ago, she was watching television with her husband when a rock smashed through her living room window. A note attached, read: “Stone this time. Dynamite next.

But Daisy refuses to be bullied. In just two days’ time, the moment she’s been working toward for the last three years will finally arrive: ten Black students will walk into a previously all-white school, striking a momentous blow for the civil rights movement. Daisy feels confident that nobody - not even Governor Faubus - will be able to obstruct the gears of justice.

The following evening, Daisy gathers the ten students in her home. She has been meeting frequently with these kids over the last few weeks, preparing them mentally for what lies ahead. Tonight, she tells the teenagers to meet here tomorrow morning, so they can travel to the school together. Daisy feels a surge of motherly pride as she observes their eager but frightened faces.

Then suddenly, something dawns on Daisy: there’s only nine kids here. One of the ten - Elizabeth Eckford - is missing. Another student tells Daisy it’s because Elizabeth doesn't have a telephone, so she was never informed of the meeting. Daisy makes a mental note to swing by the Eckfords tomorrow and pick Elizabeth up so she doesn’t go to school alone.

And when the morning arrives, the students convene at Daisy’s house as planned. Daisy and another NAACP activist drive the children to Central High. And while waiting in traffic, Daisy tunes the radio to a local news program. A newscaster is speaking about the integration of Central High School, saying: “ of the ten Negro children, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, arrived alone moments ago...”

With a jolt of panic, Daisy remembers Elizabeth. She slams her foot down and speeds the rest of the way to the school. But when they arrive, Elizabeth is nowhere to be found. The school is surrounded by a mob of at least three hundred people, chanting racist slogans and holding up messages opposing desegregation.

Ignoring their taunts, Daisy leads the frightened children toward the school building. But a National Guardsman steps forward and stops them from going any further, explaining, he is following orders from Governor Faubus.

The students return to Daisy’s house, shaken and deflated. Later that morning, Elizabeth arrives. The traumatized teenager stares at Daisy with resentment and asks: “why did you forget me?”

Daisy apologizes profusely. But she urges the students not to allow this setback to dampen their resolve. And to Daisy’s relief, the teenagers listen - all but one of the original ten agree to make another attempt at enrollment.

Before long, the confrontation at Central High receives nationwide attention. Little Rock becomes a flashpoint in the ongoing struggle between the forces of bigotry and the forces of equality - and America takes notice.

Unable to ignore the unfolding drama, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends a telegram to Governor Faubus warning him not to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling. Begrudgingly, Faubus assures the President that he will allow the Black students to enroll. But while Faubus calls off the National Guard, he does nothing to dispense the mob…

On September 23rd, the nine remaining Black students make a second attempt to enter the school. This time, they make it inside the building. But soon, however, the mob outside begins rioting, demanding the removal of the Little Rock Nine, and forcing armed police to escort the children back out again.

That evening, President Eisenhower will issue a proclamation demanding the opponents of integration to “cease and desist.” But yet again, the mob will return to the school the next morning. And it will prove the final straw. Soon, Eisenhower will use his executive authority to force the desegregation of Little Rock Central High - and call upon the United States Army to uphold the law of the land.

Act Three: Eisenhower Intervenes

It’s the evening of September 24th, 1957 in Washington DC.; the day after the Little Rock Nine were escorted out of school by armed police.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower sits in the Oval Office as a camera crew sets up around him.

Over the last few weeks, the ugly bigotry exhibited by the mob in Little Rock has cast a shadow of shame over America. Few could look at the photographs of the young Black students being heckled and spat at and not feel a sense of indignation.

But so far, Eisenhower has been unable to make headway on the issue. He has been locked in a game of political checkers with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. But he knows that the longer this affair drags on, the more damaging it will be for America.

Yesterday, the President issued a “cease and desist” order, commanding Faubus to dismiss the National Guard and disperse the mob. And while Fabus called off the National Guard, the mob remains. And this morning, it returned to prevent the nine Black students from entering the school yet again.

Eisenhower hoped to resolve the situation with diplomacy. But now it seems he has little choice but to use the power of the executive branch to safeguard equality - and preserve America’s reputation in the eyes of the world.

Tonight, the President is preparing to address the nation, publicly condemning the actions of the racist mob. He clears his throat and looks squarely down the lens of the camera…

"EISENHOWER: The President’s responsibility is inescapable. In accordance with that responsibility I have today issued an executive order directing the use of troops under federal authority to aid in the execution of federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas, this became necessary, when my proclamation of yesterday was not observed and the obstruction of justice still continues.."

Following his address, Eisenhower federalizes the Arkansas National Guard and approves the deployment of 1,000 paratroopers to Little Rock. The next morning, the nine Black students climb the front steps of Central High, surrounded by a retinue of heavily-armed soldiers, and enter the school building unopposed.

But for the Little Rock Nine, their tribulations are just beginning. For the duration of their time at Central High, they will suffer violent abuse, bullying, and exclusion. Many of the student’s parents will be fired from their jobs, and face near-continuous harassment themselves. Ultimately, only one of the nine will graduate from Central High - the others will transfer to different schools, or finish their education mostly at home through correspondence programs.

Still, the legacy of the Little Rock Nine is unassailable. In the years following their enrollment, they will be hailed as paragons of courage and heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1999, President Bill Clinton presents them with Congressional Gold Medals - the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress - in recognition of the bravery and determination they exhibited when they walked into Little Rock Central High School for the first time on September 23rd, 1957.


Next onHistory Daily.September 26th, 1786. American farmer Daniel Shays leads a militia of debt-ridden citizens to protest high taxes and shut down Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court in what will come to be known as Shays Rebellion.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.