Continuing a look at the events and people in Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.
Each two lines represent a year.
Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, "Bridge on the River Kwai"
Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball
Starkweather, homicide, children of thalidomide
Buddy Holly, "Ben Hur", space monkey, Mafia
Hula hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go
U-2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, "Psycho", Belgians in the Congo
- By 1957 the US Supreme Court decision of Brown v Board of Education that declared “separate but equal” in America’s public schools unconstitutional had been in force for 3 years. Nonetheless hostility remained strong in the South.
- Following enrolment in the summer of 1957, nine black students attended at Little Rock Central High School to commence classes. Their enrolment was a challenge to segregation.
- The students had been warned by the Little Rock board of education not to attend the first day of school. They arrived on the second da,y accompanied by a small interracial group of minister, and encountered a large white mob in front of the school, who began shouting, throwing stones, and threatening to kill the students.
- About 270 soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard, sent by Arkansas Governor Orval Eugene Faubus, blocked the school’s entrance. Faubus had declared his opposition to integration and his intention to defy a federal court order requiring desegregation.
- The confrontation in Little Rock drew international attention to racism and civil rights in the United States as well as to the battle between federal and state power. Television and newspaper reporters devoted substantial coverage to the “Little Rock Nine,” as the African American students were called.
- Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Governor Faubus, and Little Rock’s mayor, Woodrow Mann, discussed the situation over the course of 18 days, during which time the nine students stayed home. The students returned to the high school on September 23, entering through a side door to avoid the protesters’ attention and wrath.
- They were eventually discovered, however, and white protesters became violent, attacking African American bystanders as well as reporters for northern newspapers.
- The students were sent home, but they returned on September 25, protected by U.S. soldiers. Despite Eisenhower’s publicly stated reluctance to use federal troops to enforce desegregation, he recognized the potential for violence and state insubordination. He thus sent the elite 101st Airborne Division, called the “Screaming Eagles,” to Little Rock and placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal command.
- The Little Rock Nine continued to face physical and verbal attacks from white students throughout their studies at Central High.
- Melba Pattillo had acid thrown into her eyes and also recalled in her book, Warriors Don't Cry, an incident in which a group of white girls trapped her in a stall in the girls' washroom and attempted to burn her by dropping pieces of flaming paper on her from above.
- Another one of the students, Minnijean Brown, was verbally confronted and abused. She said
I was one of the kids 'approved' by the school officials. We were told we would have to take a lot and were warned not to fight back if anything happened. One girl ran up to me and said, 'I'm so glad you're here. Won't you go to lunch with me today?' I never saw her again.
- Minnijean Brown was also taunted by members of a group of white male students in December 1957 in the school cafeteria during lunch. She dropped her lunch, a bowl of chili, onto the boys and was suspended for six days. Two months later, after more confrontation, Brown was suspended for the rest of the school year. She transferred to the New Lincoln School in New York City. White students were punished only when their offense was "both egregious and witnessed by an adult".
- The remaining eight students, however, attended the school for the rest of the academic year. At the end of the year, in 1958, senior Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Little Rock Central High School.
- Governor Faubus was re-elected in 1958, and, rather than permit desegregation, he closed all of Little Rock’s schools.
- Many school districts in the South followed Little Rock’s example, closing schools or implementing “school-choice” programs that subsidized white students’ attendance at private segregated academies, which were not covered by the Supreme Court’s decision.
- Little Rock Central High School did not reopen with a desegregated student body until 1960, and efforts to integrate schools and other public areas throughout the country continued through the 1960s.
- In 1996, seven of the Little Rock Nine appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. They came face to face with a few of the white students who had tormented them as well as one student who had befriended them.
- In February 1999, members created the Little Rock Nine Foundation which established a scholarship program which had funded, by 2013, 60 university students. In 2013, the foundation decided to exclusively fund students attending the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas.
- President Bill Clinton honoured the Little Rock Nine in November 1999 when he presented them each with a Congressional Gold Medal. The medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress. It is given to those who have provided outstanding service to the country. To receive the Congressional Gold Medal, recipients must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of both the House and Senate.
- In 2007, the United States Mint made available a commemorative silver dollar to "recognize and pay tribute to the strength, the determination and the courage displayed by African-American high school students in the fall of 1957." The obverse depicts students accompanied by a soldier, with nine stars symbolizing the Little Rock Nine. The reverse depicts an image of Little Rock Central High School, c. 1957.
- On December 9, 2008, the Little Rock Nine were invited to attend the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected President of the United States.
The Little Rock Nine –
Melba Pattillo, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray, and Thelma Mothershed
The Little Rock Nine being escorted by the National Guard to Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, 1957.
African American students walking onto the campus of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, escorted by the National Guard, September 1957.
Young U.S. Army paratrooper in battle gear outside Central High School, on the cover of Time magazine (October 7, 1957)
A white student slugs an effigy of a black student outside Central High.
Hazel Massery nee Bryan, a student at Little Rock Central High School, depicted in an iconic photograph made by photojournalist Will Counts showing her shouting at Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, during the school integration crisis. In 1963, having changed her mind on integration and feeling guilt for her treatment of Eckford, Bryan contacted Eckford to apologize. They went their separate ways after this first meeting but later became friends. The friendship came to an end as a result of Bryan severing ties as she felt an irreconcilable tension between them.
Memorial at Arkansas State Capitol