Year of Reckoning
The school desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School put on trial America's commitment to its founding principles. It was the first significant test of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The successful outcome affirmed the basis of that rulingthe 14th Amendment's promise of "equal protection of the laws."
What became a defining moment in the South's "massive resistance" to school desegregation began quietly enough with a plan by Little Rock's school board to gradually integrate the city's schools. But Orval Faubus, the populist governor of Arkansas with a reputation for relative moderation on racial issues, undercut local officials. Race was playing an increasing role in Arkansas politics, and Faubus was looking ahead to running for reelection in 1958. His actions turned ordered desegregation into violent confrontation.
Crying "states' rights" and floating rumors about planned violence, Faubus justified calling out the National Guard to keep orderby blocking the entry of nine African American students. Faubus also cited concern for their safety, but before the eyes of guardsmen, mobs followed, spat on, and threatened violence to the students. Later, after a court had ordered the National Guard withdrawn, and with only police to control the situation, an angry crowd beat both black and white journalists.
In the weeks before the students gained entry under the protection of U.S. Army troops, the governor's defiance and legal maneuvering stoked a constitutional crisis. A growing media presence made this an ongoing news event played out on the country's TV screens. But while Little Rock became the face of the nation's desegregation troubles of the 1950s and 60s, the struggle for equal rights enacted there transcended region, race, and historical period. The struggle continues, and the commitment and courage shown by the Little Rock students is still needed if history is not to be repeated.
Federal court declares closings unconstitutional. Schools reopen in August. Three African Americans attend Central High School, including Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls.
U.S. SCHOOL DESEGREGATION
1849 Roberts v. The City of Boston
1881 Tuskegee Institute
1896 Plessy v. Ferguson
1909 Formation of NAACP
1936 Univ. of Maryland v. Murray
1946 Mendez v. Westminster
1950 Sweatt v. Painter
1954 Brown v. Board of Education
1960 Ruby Bridges
1972 Detroit Busing Plan
1976 Boston Anti-Busing Riots
Players in a Public Drama
THE LITTLE ROCK NINE
A Clash of Viewpoints
Some Little Rock citizens who opposed integration were ready to accept it to avoid disrupting their children's education and damaging the city's reputation as progressiveand thus its business prospects. (To most African Americans the city was progressive only in the eyes of the whites and only in relation to more racially intolerant southern cities.) Others dug in their heels against change, and both sides began marshalling their forces.
Opponents of desegregation formed the Capital Citizens Council and the Mothers' League of Central High School, circulating flyers and petitioning the courts to delay desegregation and remove federal troops. After an African American student was expelled, a group of students distributed anti-integration cards reading "One Down . . . Eight To Go."
When the divided school board fired 44 teachers and administrators suspected of supporting integration, the group Stop This Outrageous Purge (STOP), supported by the Women's Emergency Committee, demanded a special school board election to recall the segregationist board members. They in turn organized the Committee to Retain Our Segregated Schools (CROSS) to block the recall. The recall effort was successful and most of the teachers were rehired.
The Eyes of the World ...
The Little Rock crisis occurred in the infancy of TV and was among the first news stories filmed as events unfolded. The Magnolia Mobil service station near the school became an impromptu press base from which reporters called in their stories.
One of the photographers on the scene was 26-year-old Will Counts. Working for the Little Rock Arkansas Gazette, Counts caught on film mobs screaming at Elizabeth Eckford and beating a black newsman. These powerful photographs helped spur President Eisenhower to actpartly because during the Cold War battle for the moral high ground the nation was embarrassed by scenes casting American society in a negative light. These now-iconic images were among those published in A Life Is More Than A Moment, Counts' moving visual essay on the events in Little Rock.
The worldwide coverage, generating outrage at the violent denial of basic rights, became a model for the civil rights movement's use of the media over the next decade.
Women on the Front Lines
Women and female students played a leading role in the crisis. The Mothers' League became the face of segregation. The Council of Church Women protested when Governor Faubus used the National Guard to bar the nine students. When civic and business leaders failed to protest the school closings, the Women's Emergency Committee took a strong stand in favor of opening the schools under the school board's desegregation plan.
Daisy L. Gatson Bates, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, pressed for immediate rather than gradual desegregation and during the crisis was spokesperson for the students. In response segregationists threw a rock through her window, fired shots at her home, and firebombed her lawn.
HISTORY OF THE SCHOOL
From its dedication in 1927, Little Rock Senior High School (its name was changed to Little Rock Central High School in 1953) was recognized as more than a typical American school. The massive structure, a handsome blend of Art Deco and Gothic Revival styles, was named by the American Institute of Architects "America's Most Beautiful High School." Central High was celebrated for its size (100 classrooms; capacity for more than 2,000 students; a huge auditorium and stage) and for its academic excellence. The school also served as a civic center in Little Rock, hosting concerts, plays, and other events. It was a focus of community pride and a cultural symbolperhaps one of the reasons so many fought so fiercely against change at the school.
ABOUT YOUR VISIT
The Visitor Center is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. It is open year-round except Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1. We suggest you start with the exhibits in the visitor center. Call ahead to arrange for group tours of park sites.
Accessibility The visitor center and the Commemorative Garden are accessible. With prior notice, accessible group tours of Little Rock Central High school are available. The interpretive exhibits include several captioned audiovisual programs. Service animals are welcome.
Directions From I-630 exit on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive (Exit 2B). Take a right on Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive. Little Rock Central High School is at the intersection of Bates Drive and Park Street. Parking is available at the visitor center.
Source: NPS Brochure (2011)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Crisis in Little Rock: Race, Class, Violence During the Desegregation of Central High School, 1957-1958 from Historia, Volume 13 (Richard Hansen, 2004)
Cultural Landscape Report: Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas (Bahr Vermeer Haecker Architects and John Milner Associates, Inc., September 2009)
Enabling Legislation Central High School National Historic Site P.L. 105-356 (November 6, 1998)
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Boundary Modification P.L. 115-117 (January 12, 2018)
Little Rock Central High School Desegregation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act P.L. 109-146 (December 22, 2005)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Little Rock Central High School (James Sheire, 1984)
Strategic Plan for Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site (October 1, 2005 - September 30, 2008)
Transforming History, Creating a Legacy: An Evaluation of Exhibit Effectiveness at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas (Theresa G. Coble, David Smaldone, Catherine McCarthy and Tammy Roberson, September 2010)
Witness to Courage: Administrative History of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Arkansas (Bruce G. Harvey and Deborah Harvey, Outside The Box LLC, 2019)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 03-Jan-2022