After the emancipation of the slaves in 1863, southern states passed a bunch of laws aiming to put basically undo it all. In response to these so-called "Black codes," the U.S. government amended the Constitution for the fourteenth time in 1868 to guarantee full citizenship to native-born Black Americans and grant equal protection under law to all citizens.
By the 1880s, the first generation of African Americans to come of age after emancipation were aspiring to the educational, political, and economic opportunities of a free society. The southern states, wanting to return to the status they had before the Civil War, didn't like like these attitudes, and enacted what were known as Jim Crow laws, a pattern of segregation, anti-Black violence, and intimidation that strictly controlled what Black Americans could and couldn't do. Schools were segregated by law in all the southern states.
In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races" in its railway cars. In 1892, encouraged by a group of civil rights activists, Homer Plessy, a mixed-race passenger (considered Black by the state of Louisiana), refused to sit in a Jim Crow car, breaking the Louisiana law. He challenged the law in court and a local judge upheld the segregation law. He appealed the decision, and the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1896, the Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that segregated public facilities were legal as long as they were of the same quality so as not to violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court stated that the arguments against segregation didn't hold up because of "[…] the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is […] solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it" (source).
In other words, if African Americans felt bad about being prohibited from sitting, eating, shopping, or traveling with whites, that was their own problem.
Schools fell under the Plessy ruling, but most African American parents realized that when this "separate but equal" concept was applied to schools, it was, in the immortal words of Fielding Mellish, "a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham."
About sixty years later, some parents in Topeka, Kansas, had had it with the poorly funded, run-down Black-majority schools that were separate but definitely not equal to white schools in their city. Oliver Brown, one of the parents, was encouraged to become the plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Topeka's school segregation. Brown's little daughter had to travel to a Black school a mile away when there was a white school a few blocks from their house. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court.
On May 17, 1954, the Court decided—unanimously, btw—that school segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. At the time the Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision, public school segregation was illegal in only 16 of the 48 States (Alaska and Hawaii weren't in the clique yet); 15 states either had no laws on the books or allowed some segregation. In 17 states, including Arkansas, segregation by race was required by law.
Think about that: required.
Arkansas took a more moderate approach to race relations than states like Mississippi and Alabama, but discrimination was rampant. Still, in August 1954, Charleston, Arkansas, schools became the first in the former Confederacy to integrate in the wake of the Brown decision.
Fayetteville soon followed, and in 1955 the school districts of Bentonville and Hoxie did the same. While the superintendent in Hoxie called integration "morally right in the sight of God," he also noted a financial reality. It had become too expensive to operate separate schools for Blacks and whites. As the Fayetteville superintendent explained, "Segregation was a luxury we could no longer afford" (source).
Hmmm—segregation a luxury. We never quite thought of it that way before.
By 1957, the year Little Rock began to integrate, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. National news outlets, including the three TV networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), covered the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the horrific murder of Emmett Till. People all over the country—and around the world—were watching the South. Hard-line segregationists took advantage of the media spotlight and kicked up their rhetoric and their actions.
But Arkansas governor Orval Faubus was no hard-liner. He hadn't intervened in integration efforts prior to 1957, he'd been a moderate on race issues, and his overall record in office was fairly progressive.
So what happened?
What happened was Faubus' own political ambition. He desperately wanted to win a third term as governor in 1958, and the only way to ensure victory was to get the backing of the segregationists. So Faubus refused to enforce federal court orders to integrate Central High School and called out the National Guard to prevent Black students from attending the white school. Eisenhower met with him to warn him to back down, but he refused.
Faubus wasn't just denying Black students their opportunity for an equal education. As a governor who refused to obey a federal court order, he'd set the state of Arkansas on a collision course with the federal government. It was an uncomfortable reminder of the states' rights argument used by the Confederacy to justify slavery before the Civil War. But federal courts had clearly ruled that segregated schools denied Blacks their constitutional rights, and no state had the legal right to buck that decision. If they did, they were violating the Constitution.
Angry, screaming mobs began to gather at Central High, threatening to lynch the students as they tried to enroll. The Little Rock police had to escort them back out because of the escalating violence. The Mayor of Little Rock begged Eisenhower to help squelch what was developing into a very ugly and dangerous situation.
Since Faubus hadn't listened to Ike's warnings, the president called the Arkansas National Guard into federal service and dispatched U.S. Army troops to Little Rock to enforce the integration law. He was using powers given to the president by the Constitution, and Executive Order 10730 spelled out exactly where those powers came from. After the 101st Airborne came marching up the streets towards Central High, the Little Rock Nine were escorted into the school that day—and every day for the remainder of the school year.
Faubus didn't give up, though. He tried to remove the nine Black students all year long, and in 1958, he rammed through a citywide referendum that resulted in the closure of the schools rather than allow integration. A whole school year was lost for all high school students in Little Rock. Central High reopened in August of 1959, but life didn't get any easier for the Little Rock Nine. Ernest Green, the only senior of the Nine, had graduated in 1958. But most of the others, because of verbal and physical abuse, decided to finish high school at other schools or via correspondence classes. (Source)
Unfortunately, the Little Rock crisis wasn't the last time a governor of a southern state defied federal orders to desegregate a school or a President had to send in troops to enforce the Brown decision. Check out our "Compare and Contrast" section for other examples.
Definitely not our finest moments as a nation. It was a long haul.
For their courageous role in the civil rights struggle, each member of the Little Rock Nine received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Bill Clinton, a proud Arkansan himself. On the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High, nine members of the current 101st Airborne Division were handpicked to escort the former students (now in their 60s) to and from the ceremonies dedicating the Little Rock High School National Historic Site Visitor Center.
When the Nine were invited to the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009, Melba Pattillo Beals said, "I never expected God to give us a gift like this. He's saying, 'Look at where your road has led us.'"