Recalling Little Rock's Segregation Battle
ALEX COHEN, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And I'm Alex Chadwick.
About a month ago on this program, we ran the first of a series of pieces about a story that's 50 years old and still not done. This is a clip from it. This is a woman talking about the phone calls her family got when she was a girl.
(Soundbite of NPR broadcast)
Ms. MINNIJEAN BROWN-TRICKEY (Little Rock Nine): People would say we're coming. We're going to grind your bones. We're going to fire bomb your house. We're going to kill you. We're going to...
CHADWICK: And that is how things were in this country on race. Evil. Half a century ago, Minnijean Brown was 16, a high school student, black. She and eight others were about to go to a white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. They were optimistic, excited. Here's another of that group of nine, Elizabeth Eckford.
Ms. ELIZABETH ECKFORD (Little Rock Nine): I thought that for a time I would hear some ugly talk, but after people got to know me that they would accept me.
CHADWICK: But they didn't. And ideas and beliefs and behaviors so deeply held they felt true, these were about to collide like social icebergs. Through months of interviewing, we have come to see this one school year in Little Rock, Arkansas as a fundamental American event.
So DAY TO DAY is going to tell this story as it happened - chronologically, over months. And this - this is the background. This is how things were just before school opened, before the cameras got there.
I'm standing in front of Little Rock Central High School. Fifty years ago this summer, this place was getting ready for history.
Ms. BETSY JACOWAY (Historian): Little Rock had a progressive racial history. It was a moderate city by all standards, as compared to other southern cities.
CHADWICK: I've learned a lot about what happened at Little Rock from a woman who comes from here.
Ms. JACOWAY: And it had integrated its public libraries, it had integrated its public transportation, it had integrated the police force.
CHADWICK: Her name is Betsy Jacoway. She's an independent scholar and historian. And her book about the Little Rock crisis is called "Turn Away Thy Son."
Ms. JACOWAY: So this was just really the last place that you would expect a crisis to break out. And that's a part of the tragedy of the whole story. Everybody was taken by surprise. Nobody really expected these kinds of things to develop, and so reacted in very human ways, oftentimes very badly.
(Soundbite of crowd)
CHADWICK: Little Rock Central High was all white. But this was the South. Nearly 100 years after the end of the Civil War, this was the real beginning of desegregation, and what was about to happen would stun this city and the country and the world. Even now, 50 years later, people are still struggling to understand why it happened the way it did.
Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: I don't think the blacks knew how much hatred there was. And I still don't think they do.
CHADWICK: Minnijean Brown-Trickey, one of the nine black students going to Central High in 1957.
And here's Lee Johnson(ph), a white senior from that year.
Mr. LEE JOHNSON (Former Student, Little Rock Central High): I'm probably like about 99 percent of the other white students at that time. I wasn't for it. But I wasn't go do anything about it.
CHADWICK: This race question was supposedly settled three years earlier in probably the most important legal decision in our history - Brown vs. the Board of Education. Separate no more, the Supreme Court said. But that was a decision from Washington, D.C., the city of marble and granite so far away.
(Soundbite of passing vehicle)
CHADWICK: This, Little Rock, this was people's lives. This was a neighborhood, a community, a school, children. This is where that law, that decision that came from so far away - this is where it had to work.
Ms. JACOWAY: The very week of the Brown decision, the superintendent, Virgil Blossom, stepped forward and said we will comply.
CHADWICK: The Little Rock school board, led by Superintendent Virgil Blossom, slowly began to plan for integration. Sure, says historian Betsy Jacoway, they were reluctant, but they were going to do it.
Ms. JACOWAY: This was a world in which segregation had been the way of life, the accepted legal way of life for 60 years. Almost all white people suffered from the stain of racism. But Blossom made the pitch to the people that, look, this is now the law of the land. It's inevitable. It's going to happen. We're going to have to do it. Let's do it according to our own plan, whereby we can have an absolute minimum of integration.
CHADWICK: They very carefully chose nine black children, all excellent students, all volunteers. Like others, Elizabeth Eckford wanted to be the first in her family to go to college, and going to Central would help her.
Ms. ECKFORD: I knew that in a segregated system whites had more courses, better laboratories, just more of a curriculum than was possible in a segregated Negro high school.
CHADWICK: But while these children were getting ready for school, white segregationists were organizing to stop them.
(Soundbite of crowd)
CHADWICK: You could hear them, groups like the Capital Citizens Council and the Mothers League, holding rallies. And the crowds that they drew and the anger that they stirred caught the attention of the governor, Orval Faubus. Now, people have thought that he was a moderate. Blacks had helped reelect him a year earlier over an ardent segregationist. But on the evening before school started, he made a somewhat cryptic speech.
Mr. ORVAL FAUBUS (Former Democratic Governor, Arkansas): Units of the National Guard have been and are now being mobilized with the mission to maintain or restore the peace and good order of this community. Advance units are already on duty on the grounds of Central High School.
Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: I remember being horrified on Labor Day when he made that announcement, but I didn't really know what it meant, and I'm thinking what peace are we keeping and what is the problem? What is it I don't know?
CHADWICK: Minnijean Brown, one of the students who would come to be known as the Little Rock Nine, was confused, and so were others in Little Rock. Had the governor called up the National Guard to make sure they got into school or to make sure they stayed out?
Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: Getting to school and having the soldiers stop us from going in, that was quite shocking.
CHADWICK: This was not just a question for Little Rock. This was where the battle over race and desegregation was going to play out, in moments of beauty and ugliness and unspeakable cruelty. Little Rock couldn't really see it coming - the courts couldn't, the country. But within days, the whole world would begin to see it.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) You can see from here, some of the action occurring down there.
Ms. JACOWAY: Television was a new medium, and here, all of a sudden, people are seeing in their living room, on their screens, these pictures of hatred, the face of hatred that they had never seen before.
CHADWICK: This is an American story - maybe the American story - with heroes and villains and the great mob of bystanders wondering what to do.
Mr. FAUBUS: In the name of God whom we all revere, what is happening in America?
CHADWICK: What was happening was change.
(Soundbite of music)
CHADWICK: Next week, on Tuesday's program, we'll look deep inside the experience of one of these students, Elizabeth Eckford. There's a famous picture of her from that time. She's wearing a shirtwaist-style dress - one she made herself just for the first day of school - and she's surrounded by a screaming mob.
Ms. ECKFORD: I did not expect any violence. It wasn't until the National Guard directed me across the street to those angry people that I realized they were there solely to keep me from going to school.
CHADWICK: We'll hear Elizabeth's story. And in the coming months, we'll have more reports about the events at Central High School and how, even across the space of half a century, we're still a nation struggling, unsure, confused about our ideal that all men and all women are created equal.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.