OPENING DOORS AND MINDS
SEPTEMBER 25, 1997
Forty years ago, nine students faced jeering crowds as they walked through the doors of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Clinton welcomed the "Little Rock Nine" through those same doors to commemorate the anniversary of school desegregation. After this background report by Tom Bearden, journalist Haynes Johnson, Ohio State Treasurer Kenneth Blackwell and historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and Roger Wilkins reflect on this historic event.
TOM BEARDEN: President Clinton ushered nine black men and women through the door of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas today. Today the former students were applauded and warmly welcomed as they and the president marked the fortieth anniversary of the desegregation of Central High.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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Central High School's Homepeage.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Little Rock is historic ground, for surely it was here at Central High that we took another giant step closer to the idea of America. Forty years ago today, they climbed these steps, passed through this door, and moved our nation. And for that, we must all thank them. (cheers and applause)
TOM BEARDEN: Today's scene was markedly different from the one forty years ago when the nine students faced jeering crowds as they entered the school. The decision to desegregate little Rock's schools stemmed from the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision--Brown vs. the Board of Education--which overturned the so called "separate but equal" standard which had led to separate schools for black and white children in the South. At first, the state government in Arkansas said it would comply with the court's ruling. And two high schools--in Charleston and Fayetteville--desegregated in the fall of 1954.
But bringing schools in Little Rock--the state's capital -- into compliance proved far more difficult. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who was running for re-election in 1956, told voters, "No school district will be forced to mix the races as long as I am governor of Arkansas." But in July 1957, the Little Rock school board said that maintaining separate schools would be a clear violation of the Supreme Court ruling. Central High was selected for desegregation and nine students were chosen from hundreds of volunteers to be the first blacks to attend there: among them, 14 year old Jefferson Thomas.
JEFFERSON THOMAS: (1957) I plan to major in electronics, and I feel Central's educational program would be best to prepare me for college than at the all Negro high school, Horace Mann.
MELBA BEALS: (1957) In speaking for the group, I might also say, that there are moral standards mixed in this. We feel that it is our right to go, because it is an institution supported by taxes which our parents participate in; we do feel we have a right to go.
TOM BEARDEN: The night before school opened, Governor Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to surround the building and prevent black students from entering. He said the Guard would protect citizens from possible violence. Segregationist crowds camped around the school, taunting and cursing the black students. Elizabeth Eckford's dress was so full of spit she was able to wring it out. Some in the crowd sported the Confederate flag to show their support for segregation. Jefferson Thomas talked about his experiences when he returned to Central High this week.
JEFFERSON THOMAS: We had photographers and newspaper reporters everyone with microphones and cameras and a lot of shouting and screaming and hollering in the background and noise you could hardly hear what anyone next to you was saying because the crowd was so loud.
TOM BEARDEN: Each day, the drama grew more intense as the black students continued to be barred from entering Central High. On Friday, September 20th, a federal judge ordered the National Guard to be withdrawn. The following Monday, Little Rock police escorted the nine students into a side entrance. Meanwhile, an angry mob of 1,000 people gathered in front of Central High. Police, fearing violence, helped the students slip out before the day was half over.
JEFFERSON THOMAS: They did slip us out that day while negotiating with the crowd which one of the students they would turn over to be killed or lynched or hanged. The crowd, the leaders or spokespersons said you know, just give us one of them, and we'll make an example out of that one, you know, give us one and you can have the other eight.
TOM BEARDEN: The scene was set for a historic confrontation. The next day, President Eisenhower dispatched 1,000 paratroopers From the 101st Airborne division and took control of the National Guard away from Governor Faubus.
PRESIDENT EISENHOWER: Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.
TOM BEARDEN: On September 25th, 1957, after a three-week standoff, the paratroopers escorted the students up the steps of Central High School. The soldiers carried rifles with fixed bayonets. Few people knew the weapons weren't loaded, however. Once inside the building, the students found even more verbal hostility and physical confrontation. Melba Pattillo Beals has written about her time at Central High in a book called Warriors Don't Cry.
MELBA BEALS: As we burst in there, hundreds of children are screaming, the niggers are in, the niggers are in, smell the niggers, get the niggers out, the niggers are in, they're in, they're in, get em, get em out of here..
TOM BEARDEN: The abuse continued throughout the school year. Beals was kicked, beaten, and had acid thrown in her face.
MELBA BEALS: Somebody just walked up really close to me and whack, and before I knew it, this stuff was coming to my eyes--at the time I didn't wear glasses--and I was walking down the hall. You expect to be shot, I thought it would be my dress, but there was this incredible pain in my eyes, the most awful pain I had ever-- and I just dropped my books and started screaming, screaming, screaming, screaming--all I could do was scream.
TOM BEARDEN: Jefferson Thomas remembers the day when white students burned a black effigy on a vacant lot across from the school.
JEFFERSON THOMAS: It was pointed out to me from a window inside the school where white kids pointed out, "You see that, tomorrow that's going to be you."
TOM BEARDEN: In 1958, one of the nine, Ernest Green, became the first black to graduate from an integrated Central High. Jefferson Thomas graduated two years later.
JEFFERSON THOMAS: It became even more important to graduate because I guess I had to prove something to myself that I wouldn't cave or give in under stress or adversity, that I was as tough as, you know, any teenager, going to say I'm tough, I can take anything you can dish out and as long as I can take it, I'm better than you are.
TOM BEARDEN: Governor Faubus shut down Central High altogether in September 1958 to stop desegregation. It reopened in the fall of 1959. Today Central High is known for academic excellence. It is a racially diverse school--60 percent black, 40 percent white--still reflecting the white flight that came in the wake of court-ordered busing. More than half of the city's students are still bused. At today's ceremony President Clinton reflected on the impact of the events of 40 years ago.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Before Little Rock, for me and other white children the struggles of black people, whether we were sympathetic or hostile to them, were mostly background music in our normal, self-absorbed lives.
We were all like you, more concerned about our friends and our lives day in and day out. But then we saw what was happening in our own backyard, and we all had to deal with it. Forty years later, frankly we know we're bound to come back where we started.
After all the weary years and silent tears, after all the stony roads and bitter rods, the question of race is in the end still an affair of the heart. But if these are our lessons, what do we have to do? First, we must all reconcile.
Then we must all face the facts of today, and finally we must act. If those nine children could walk up those steps 40 years ago, all alone, if their parents could send them into the storm armed only with school books and the righteousness of their cause, then surely together we can build one America, an America that makes sure no future generation of our children will have to pay for our mistakes with the loss of their innocence.
God bless the Little Rock Nine and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.