Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 14. Segment 3
Central High

In 1957, three years after the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Broad of Education to outlaw segregated schools, there still weren't any classrooms in the Deep South where blacks and whites sat together See It Now - "Education Without Mixing". Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas was one of the South's finest public schools and had more than 2,000 students. But not one black child had ever gone to Central High when a modest experiment in integration was about to begin. Melba Pattillo wanted to go to Central High. She wrote, Hear It Now - Melba Pattillo "I understood education before I understood anything else. From the time I was two, my mother said, 'Education is your key to survival.' "

Fifteen-year-old Melba Pattillo had no "overwhelming desire to change history." She just wanted to go to a good school, and she was one of nine black children picked to integrate Central High See It Now - "The Little Rock Nine". She didn't expect problems. Neither did most people. But some citizens were determined to fight integration. And local lawmakers, who could have helped the situation, didn't. Arkansas's governor, Orval Faubus See It Now - Governor Orval Faubus, vowed he would keep the nine Little Rock students out of Central High. Faubus knew that backing integration would hurt him amongst white voters, but opposing it wouldn't hurt him at all, because blacks couldn't vote in his state. That's why he called in the Arkansas militia.

And then in direct response to the Governor's defiance, a federal court ordered desegregation to proceed in Little Rock. September 23 was to be the first day of integration. That morning a large group of angry citizens assembled outside Central High School. And then, an eruption took place Check The Source - Little Rock Crisis. The Associated Press reported it this way: Hear It Now - Associated Press "It was exactly like an explosion, a human explosion. At 8:35 a.m., the people standing in front of the high school looked like the ones you see every day in a shopping center. Five minutes later, at 8:40, they were a mob—the terrifying spectacle of 200-odd individuals, suddenly welded together into a single body, took place in the barest fraction of a second. It was an explosion, savagery chain-reacting from person to person, fusing them into a white-hot mass."

Melba Pattillo later wrote about her experience. She said, Hear It Now - Melba Pattillo "The first day I was able to enter Central High School, what I felt inside was terrible, wrenching, awful fear. On the car radio I could hear that there was a mob. I knew that the sounds that came from the crowd were very angry. So we entered the side of the building, very, very fast. Even as we entered there were people running after us, people tripping other people Check The Source - Melba Pattillo Speaks Out."

With the mob vowing to lynch the young blacks, local police stepped in and removed the students from the building. Integration in Little Rock had lasted just part of a morning.

At the White House President Dwight D. Eisenhower See It Now - Dwight D. Eisenhower says he doesn't want to take sides. He believes in persuasion. But there is no persuading the lawbreakers who stand outside Central High that day and the next. Reluctantly, Eisenhower orders federal troops sent to Little Rock, saying Hear It Now - Eisenhower "mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts Check The Source - Eisenhower Finally Acts See It Now - Little Rock High School Closed."

On September 24, 1957, under the protection of the U. S. military, the nine black students are escorted to Central High School See It Now - Students Escorted . One of the nine students is Ernest Green See It Now - Ernest Green. A military convoy takes him to school that day. There is a jeep in front and a jeep behind, as he later remembers: Hear It Now - Ernest Green "They both had machine gun mounts. The whole school was ringed with paratroopers and helicopters hovering around. We marched up the steps with this circle of soldiers with bayonets drawn. Walking up the steps that day was probably one of the biggest feelings I've ever had."

Daisy Bates See It Now - Daisy Bates, who was president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, wrote about what unfolded next: "Around the massive brick schoolhouse, 350 paratroopers stood grimly at attention. Within minutes a world that had been holding its breath learned that the nine pupils, protected by the might of the U.S. military, had finally entered the 'never-never land.' "

That year, Ernest Green became the first black person to graduate from Central High See It Now - Ernest Green Graduates. He wrote, Hear It Now - Ernest Green "I figured I was making a statement and helping black people's existence in Little Rock. I kept telling myself, I just can't trip with all those cameras watching me. But I knew that once I got as far as that principal and received that diploma, I had cracked the wall."

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