"Please help the soldiers to keep the mobs away from me," wrote Melba Pattillo in her diary on the night of September 24, 1957.
We're guessing you've never had to write that line in your diary.
The previous day in Little Rock, Arkansas, police had escorted Pattillo, a 15-year-old high school junior, and eight other Black students out of Central High School as angry white protesters threatened the students. Then, on September 24, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10730 and sent the U.S. Army—the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles," to be exact—to escort the Black students back in.
Need us to back up a little more? Okay, here we go.
As you undoubtedly know from acing every U.S History class you've ever taken, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declared that segregating public schools by race was unconstitutional. Segregation denied Black students their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law; a public education, said the court, was "a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
This decision body-slammed the 1896 "separate but equal is okay" opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, which permitted racially segregated public facilities as long as they were equal.
Which they never were, by the way.
A second Brown decision in 1955 ordered school integration to proceed "with all deliberate speed." (Isn't that an oxymoron?)
Little Rock's school board, like many others throughout the South, voted to integrate gradually. Beginning with Central High in 1957, the plan called for the rest of the district to be integrated by 1963. Nine Black students from the city's all-Black schools—known to history books and Shmoop learning guides as the Little Rock Nine—volunteered to be the first to attend Central High.
Their classmates would be 2,000 white students.
This wasn't Arkansas' first rodeo. Other school districts had integrated before Little Rock. There were lawsuits and ugly protests, but no violence. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus generally stayed out of things and left integration to the local authorities.
But when Little Rock's turn came in 1957, Faubus changed his mind about his whole "don't come crying to me" approach. Without the support of white segregationists, he knew he'd lose the next gubernatorial election. So when, at the end of August, a federal judge ordered integration to proceed, Faubus loudly and publicly let it be known that he had no intent of complying.
He didn't know what was about to hit him.
On September 2, Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard on the pretext of "keeping order" in Little Rock. In reality, the Guard was there to keep the Black students out of Central High. When the students showed up for classes on September 4, the Guard turned them away. For the next three weeks, Little Rock simmered as the governor defied the court order. Then, on Friday, September 20, in response to another court order, he withdrew the National Guard.
Predictably, when the nine Black students at arrived at Central High the next Monday, the school was quickly surrounded by a screaming, spitting mob of 1,000+ protesters. Fearful that they couldn't control the mob, city police escorted the students home.
At this point, President Eisenhower issued a proclamation ordering the protesters to go home and allow enforcement of the District Court order to integrate. The next morning, he received a telegram from the mayor of Little Rock saying that the "mob is armed and engaging in fisticuffs and other acts of violence. Situation is out of control."
Oh, no, not fisticuffs.
Eisenhower had sworn to uphold the Constitution, and the Supreme Court had made it clear that an equal right to public education was protected by the Constitution. If the state wouldn't guarantee the constitutional rights of its citizens, the federal government would have to do it for them.
Ike wasn't happy about having to use federal troops against American citizens; it hadn't happened since Reconstruction. He and his advisors reflected on other times in history when the feds had to use force, like when Washington used troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. But the rule of law was at stake here. "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts," Eisenhower said (source).
Executive Order 10730 of September 24, 1957 placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal control and allowed the U.S. Army to intervene to remove this obstruction of justice. It was an epic showdown between the state of Alabama and the federal government. David Halberstam, in his book The Fifties, wrote:
With the arrival of the 101st, the nation witnessed again a stunning spectacle on TV; elite paratroopers of one of the most honored divisions in the United States Army escorting young black children where once there had been a mob. The soldiers set up their perimeter. Their faces were immobile and, unlike the Guardsmen's, betrayed no politics, only duty. As they marched in, the clear, sharp sound of their boots clacking on the street was a reminder of their professionalism. When the segregationists in the street protested, the paratroopers turned out to be very different from the National Guard soldiers who had so recently been their pals. The men of the 101st fixed their bayonets and placed them right at the throats of the protesters, quickly moving them out of the school area. (Source)
Governor Faubus didn't see the soldiers' actions as so heroic, telling his fellow Alabamans, "My fellow citizens, we are now an occupied territory […]" (source).
Years later, Melba Pattillo wrote in her memoir Warriors Don't Cry, "I felt proud and sad at the same time. Proud that I lived in a country that would go this far to bring justice to a Little Rock girl like me, but sad that they had to go to such great lengths."
President Ronald Reagan once joked that "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
He must have forgotten about Executive Order 10730.
Who calls the shots when it comes to making laws? Should citizens of the states have the final say? Can the feds dictate what Arkansans or Alabamans or Mississippians or whatever you call people from Massachusetts have to do? At what point does an issue become so important that the president has to take action to enforce a federal law that might be in conflict with a state law?
As voters, you have to think about this stuff. And guess what? It's complicated.
In Little Rock, Governor Faubus disagreed with a federal law—school desegregation—and used armed state troops (the National Guard) to prevent it from being carried out. Did Faubus have the right to challenge the law? Legally, yes. We all have the right to demonstrate and to say publicly, "Hey, this law stinks." But if we choose to disobey a federal law or to keep it from being enforced, well…there are consequences.
Ike's intervention in Little Rock demonstrated that the power of the federal government stood behind civil rights because of the Equal Protection Clause in the Fightin' Fourteenth. But Executive Order 10730 didn't resolve the tug of war between the rights of the states and the rights of the federal government. That hot-button issue goes back to the Constitutional Convention, through the justification of slavery as a states' rights issue, to today's arguments about same-sex marriage, immigration, voting rights, and marijuana legalization.
Name an issue, and chances are some state has tried (or is trying) to redefine or legislate around a federal law.
States are allowed to have their own laws about lots of things: concealed carry, medical marijuana use, age of consent to get married, and right-to-die laws, to mention a few. But they have to follow federal laws about other issues like racial equality, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, and abortion rights. That's because these laws are based on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution, and if the Court has ruled that a state law violates the Constitution, the states have to fall in line.
So, if they don't like the federal government's stance on these issues, what's a poor state to do?
Well, they could try seceding from the Union, like the confederate states did in the 1860s and like some Texans keep suggesting, but, uh…good luck with that. Or they could ignore federal guidelines and pay the price, like Orval Faubus did.
If you as an individual disagree with your state's law, you can…
If it's a federal law you don't like, though, it's a lot harder, because Supreme Court judgments are final.
Sure, you can vote for presidential candidates who you think would appoint Supreme Court justices that might change change the federal laws you don't like. After all, the Supreme Court in Brown overturned an earlier Court decision about segregation.
Or you can just ignore the federal laws, like the Kentucky town clerk who felt that her religious beliefs prohibited her from signing marriage licenses for same-sex couples, or former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who kept a giant granite replica of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse despite the Constitution's clause forbidding the government's establishment of religion.
But, uh, spoiler alert: that didn't end well for either of them.
When the southern governors involved in the most famous school integration showdowns justified their actions, they used words like "sovereign state," "God-given rights," "illegal intrusion," "military dictatorship," and "tyranny." Underneath all their states' rights rhetoric, though, was the same simple fact: some Black kids wanted to enroll in school and they didn't want them there.
These fights get loud and sometimes ugly, but only rarely, like Little Rock and some other notable exceptions, have they ended at the point of a bayonet.
The U.S.: can't live with it; can't live without it.
History Lives Here
Central High School, still in operation, became a National Historic Site in 2007.
The Whole Story
An overview of the Little Rock Crisis includes first-hand accounts.
Little Rock Nine Foundation
Biographies of each member of the Little Rock Nine.
On the Record
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library features several online collections pertaining to civil rights and the Little Rock Crisis. See especially the telegram to the president from the parents of the Little Rock Nine.
Here We Go Again
A mind-blowing website about the integration of the University of Mississippi, with tons of original letters, documents, and court transcripts.
The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door
More primary sources from the JFK library about the repeat performance of desegregation—this time at the University of Alabama.
Nine From Little Rock
An Oscar-winning 1964 documentary short film profiles the Little Rock Nine members. Narrated by Niner Jefferson Thomas.
Crisis at Central High
The 1981 made-for-TV movie is based on the memoir of Elizabeth Huckaby, Central's vice principal for girls.
The Ernest Green Story
The 1993 made-for-TV movie focuses on Central's first African-American graduate.
Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown
An award-winning 2001 documentary.
Mike Wallace interviews Governor Orval Faubus for ABC TV in 1957.
"Nine Courageous Students"
A May 1958 article about the Little Rock Nine from the NAACP magazine The Crisis.
Then and Now
Little Rock Nine member Minnijean Brown shares her memories with the Smithsonian Institution (Note: Excellent video embedded in this story that connects past and present)
Not Teenagers Anymore
On the 50th anniversary of the crisis, the 101st Airborne escorted the Little Rock Nine again, but this time it was a ceremony dedicating Little Rock High School National Historic Site.
Eisenhower's Address to the Nation
President Eisenhower's televised speech on the night of September 24th, 1957.
Little Rock: The Civil Rights Battleground
President Bill Clinton explains why Eisenhower's Little Rock decision was the right move for the country.
"The President Will Protect Your Child"
The Little Rock Nine recall what the arrival of the U.S. Army meant to them.
On the Scene
News footage from 1957 includes interviews with white Little Rock students. (Warning: Some students use the N-word.)
Only 60 Years Ago
Here's a series of documentary videos about the crisis in Little Rock.
Elizabeth and Hazel
Author David Margolick discusses his book Elizabeth and Hazel, the story of the most famous photograph of the Little Rock Crisis and its impact on the two girls at its center.
Carlotta Walls Remembers
Little Rock Nine member Carlotta Walls recalls what it was like to make history at the age of 14.
The most famous photograph of Little Rock, by newspaper photographer Will Counts.
The press descends on Little Rock.
Art Imitates Life
A sculpture at the Arkansas State Capitol remembers that fateful day.
The 101st Means Business
The Army disperses protestors at bayonet-point.
Ernest Green graduates from Central High in 1958.
He is Not Amused
Governor Faubus holds up a newspaper to show the grave injustice being inflicted on the citizens of Little Rock. You'd think that bullets were flying.