The Little Rock Nine: How Far Has the Country Come?

On September 25, 1957, federal troops escorted black students into Central High School in the Arkansas capital. But school integration remains an unfinished task.

A memorial to the Little Rock Nine at Central High (Steve Snodgrass/Flickr)

Black children went to school with white children. This was in 1957, in Arkansas, in America; this was significant.

Three years after the Supreme Court overturned its doctrine of “separate but equal,” Central High School in Little Rock became one of the first practical tests of the principles enshrined in Brown v. Board of Education. Nine black students showed up for the first day of class, only to be turned away by the Arkansas National Guard, operating under Governor Orval Faubus’s orders to “preserve the peace.” Over the next weeks, a constitutional crisis unfurled: Could a governor defy the federal courts?

Eventually, under pressure from President Eisenhower, Faubus backed down, the newly federalized National Guard was withdrawn, and the students again tried to attend Central High on September 23. "The niggers won't get in," said the angry mob—and the "Little Rock Nine" were forced to leave school at noon. It was only on September 25, under the protection of federal troops, that these children were able to complete a full day of classes, thus becoming standard bearers for a civil-rights movement that would change the nation.

Just how much change school integration effected has been a much-debated topic in The Atlantic over the last 57 years. Here is a selection of our writing on race and education, from Brown to affirmative action to today's new forms of segregation.

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In 1954, Harvard Law School Professor Arthur E. Sutherland wrote an article indicating the level of optimism many Americans felt after the Court struck down school segregation:

One should never forget the immense moral pressure of such a great judgment as that just announced, and its capacity to persuade men of good will who have been doubting and hesitating. No state in the Union is populated by a separate species of cruel and brutal white men, seeking by cynical devices or by sheer defiance to escape the performance of constitutional duties. One has only to travel in the present South to realize the contrary—to be convinced of the rapid increase of humanitarianism, of cultivation, of kindness, of comfort, of all the good things that go to make up a great civilization.

The Brown decision was, of course, a hugely significant moment in America's march toward justice. But in December 1957, after Little Rock, The Atlantic reported that integration was not going to be as smooth as Sutherland and others had hoped:

What hope there is in the Little Rock affair is the President's decision to use troops may convince Southern die-hards that they cannot take a lawless route to defeat the Supreme Court's ruling.

Troops from the 101st Airborne Division escort black students into Central High. (AP)

Six years later, Benjamin E. Mays, the African-American president of Morehouse college, argued that the racial situation in the South had not in fact grown worse since the Brown ruling, but merely represented a new form of "honest communication." Until the justices weighed in, the discourse had been essentially censored, by both servants who "wanted to hold their jobs" and "Negro leaders" who "courted the favor of the whites." (Sage Stossel recapped these two articles in 1995.)

The May 17, 1954, decision of the United States Supreme Court cleared the air for honesty between the races .... Negroes do not wish to be branded as inferiors by being segregated, and they want to walk the earth as human beings with dignity. We are now beginning to communicate without hypocrisy and without fear.

By August 1963 that new "communication" had resulted in what The Atlantic described as "the hideous fact of dogs and fire hoses used against protesting Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama" that "lit up the racial scene from border to border."

And after the passage of the landmark Civil Right Acts of 1964, Robert Coles wrote about the resentment racial changes had fostered among working-class Northerners. This white feeling of exclusion from societal changes echoed in some respects how race and class interests have faced off in American history since Bacon's Rebellion and running through Reconstruction:

... there is a certain snobbish and faddish "interest" in Negroes from people who would not think of concerning themselves with those many white families who share with Negroes slums, poor schools, uncertain employment—the parade of crippling events that make up what "we" so easily call "poverty" or "cultural disadvantages."

Many of the poor white people I know in both the South and the North envy not merely the attention the Negro is now getting or even the help he so badly needs. While most of them are not aware of it—I have met a few who are exquisitely aware of it—they also envy the Negro his success at finding a viable protest movement.

A police office stands guard as Boston's school-busing program begins. (PBR/AP)

In November 1972, Frank Barrows traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to assess the city's progress in complying with the 1971 Supreme Court decision Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which upheld the use of busing to achieve racial desegregation in schools. Barrows reported that "a giant fleet of buses can be seen transporting white students into the ghetto and black students into the suburbs calmly, regularly and efficiently." (This archival piece is unavailable online.) Yet racial tensions had not disappeared:

The disappearance of protest slogans and the sight of children laughing and shouting normally as they wait at the corner might lead to the assumption that all eventually went well here, that indignation has matured into consent, that the integrated classroom is an accomplishment goal and the school bus ride an accepted fact.

Unfortunately, in the middle of a third full year of extensive busing, Charlotte belies such facile judgments. Appearances aside, the vast majority of those parents whose automobiles sported angry stickers still think busing an outrageous injustice.

Integration through busing led to fierce protests in both North and South, most notably in South Boston in 1974. In that year, the Supreme Court would weigh in again in the Milliken v. Bradley decision, which placed a limitation on Swann and held that students could only be bused across district lines if there was evidence of de jure segregation across multiple school districts.

A white student slugs an effigy of a black student outside Central High. (AP)

Governor Faubus's opposition to desegregation brought about the Little Rock crisis. Raised in a racially liberal household—his middle name was Eugene, after labor organizer Eugene Debs—Faubus didn't have the background one might expect from a racial demagogue. Though Little Rock was the governor's only turn on the national stage, historians were still unpacking his legacy 40 years later. Benjamin Schwarz reviewed a biography of Faubus by Roy Reed in 1998:

"In every respect except the paradox of the calendar," Reed maintains, Faubus's "was entirely a nineteenth century boyhood." The Ozarks had so few roads that towns were often connected only by mountainous paths. Cleaning the family's clothes meant first washing the guts of freshly butchered hogs in a frigid mountain stream to make lye soap. Reed's most striking example of the alien world of Faubus's youth is both less clichéd and more obvious than these: "Death," Reed observes, "was everywhere." In his old age Faubus would lead visitors through his childhood community's cemetery, pointing out the small grave depressions of infants and children that filled the yard. At least six of his cousins, including his two closest playmates, died in youth. Two children of a neighboring family died of the flux thirty minutes apart, helping to weave what Reed calls "the endless skein of death." Faubus's were a hard people, inured to events at once terrible and common.

Long after Faubus's death, race and education remain some of the most divisive questions in the nation—and few of these questions topics are more divisive than school vouchers. Would competition improve schools for all? Or leave already over-burdened schools to rot? In a 2002 piece titled "Reversing White Flight," Jonathan Rauch supported a voucher plan:

The strongest argument for school vouchers is moral. It is simply wrong for rich, predominantly white liberals to insist that poor, predominantly minority children attend dysfunctional and often dangerous schools that rich, predominantly white liberals would never allow their own children to set so much as one foot in. It is callous for rich, predominantly white liberals to continue to tell inner-city parents, year after year, "Urban schools must be fixed! Meanwhile, we're outta here. Good luck."

Massery and Eckford in 1957 (Wikipedia)

Another book review, by Kate Tuttle in 2011, highlights the personal side of integration. Some of the most enduring images from Central High show a snarling white teenager, Hazel Bryan Massery, screaming at Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. Years later, Massery called to apologize, and the two tentatively reconciled. For Eckford, however, those high-school years came at a great personal cost:

When the school year was over, [author David] Margolick writes, Little Rock voters "decreed that rather than integrate, the city's public high schools would close for the 1958-59 year. (Central's football team nonetheless played a full schedule.)" Eckford, who had been an excellent student, foundered in college and after, attempting suicide and spending days in bed. Decades later, while seeking treatment for depression, a psychiatrist who recognized her name finally diagnosed her with posttraumatic stress disorder ...

Black neighbors admired her heroism but also saw her as "a cautionary tale," Margolick writes. "She personified for some the price paid for integration—a price, these people had concluded, that had been too high."

Meanwhile, many of the changes that Brown brought were slowly rolling back across the country. In 2012, Sarah Garland looked at the numbers behind a "steady but significant" return to racial isolation in America's schools.

After half a century, America's efforts to end segregation seem to be winding down. In the years after Brown v. Board of Education, 755 school districts were under desegregation orders. A new Stanford study reports that as of 2009, that number had dropped to as few as 268.

It's unclear what effect school "re-segregation" will have on minority achievement, though a large body of research suggests it certainly won't help efforts to improve test scores, graduation rates, and college entry levels for blacks and Hispanics, a growing share of the U.S. population. But the retreat from desegregation also suggests the policy had significant flaws--problems current education reformers should pay attention to.

Affirmative action in higher education was created to redress the grievances minorities have suffered since well before Brown. Yet it too, is under pressure from those, like Chief Justice John Roberts, who believe "the whole point of something like the Equal Protection clause is to take race off the table."

Many Americans believe just that—that the central command of the Equal Protection Clause is to produce a system where race doesn’t matter and we don’t have to think about it.

Many other Americans, however, believe that the point of the Clause—of the whole Fourteenth Amendment, in fact—is to bring about real equality, not as goal or a motto but as a fact. And if government has to take account of race to do that, so be it.

Both groups contain people of good will. And neither group can understand a word the other says.

That was Garrett Epps writing last year, after the Court upheld Michigan's ban on affirmative action. Considering the same case, Conor Friedersdorf wondered if the Court's dissenters were treating minorities as a bloc:

I'd bet heavily that race-based affirmative action disproportionately hurts Asian-American students. Its ultimate effect on blacks and Latinos is beyond my ability to discern.

Does it help some blacks and Latinos?


Does it hurt others?

The scholarly literature on mismatch strongly suggests that the answer is yes, though I remain uncertain about its overall impact.

In 1963, George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in an attempt to prevent black students from enrolling. (AP)

"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Alabama governor's famous, defiant words gave Nikole Hannah-Jones the title for her feature this year on D'Leisha Dent, a Tuscaloosa homecoming queen struggling with the return of "separate but unequal" education. The Alabama city's Central high school, once proud, has seen a gradual erosion in quality as white students exit the district:

The reason for the decline of Central’s homecoming parade is no secret. In 2000, another federal judge released Tuscaloosa City Schools from the court-ordered desegregation mandate that had governed it for a single generation. Central had successfully achieved integration, the district had argued—it could be trusted to manage that success going forward.

Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time. The citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools. Central retains the name of the old powerhouse, but nothing more. A struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black. D’Leisha, an honors student since middle school, has only marginal college prospects. Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to Central have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools.

Last month, after a summer studying French at Middlebury College, Ta-Nehisi Coates assessed the impact segregation and racial expectations had on his own educational development:

For carrying books in black neighborhoods, in black schools, around black people, I was called many things—nerd, bright, doofus, Malcolm, Farrakhan, Mandela, sharp, smart, airhead. I was told that my “head was too far in the clouds.” I was told that I was “going to do something one day.” But I was never called white. The people who called me a nerd were black. The people who said I was going to “do something one day” were also black. There was no one else around me, and no one else in America then cared. This was not just true of me, it was true of most black children of that era who were then, and are now, the most segregated group in this country. Segregation meant many of us had to rely on traditions closer to home.

And at home I found a separate culture of intellectual achievement. This is the tradition of Carter G. Woodson, Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X. It argues for education not simply as credentialism or certification, but as a profound act of auto-liberation. This was the culture of my childhood and it gave me some of the greatest thrills of my youth.


The vocabulary has changed over the years; so have the specific debates. "Negroes" become blacks, or "inner-city children." We argue about busing, then vouchers, then affirmative action. But there's a worrisome continuity running through these stories: How do we close the achievement gap? What steps should be taken to achieve integration? How do we define equality? The Atlantic was founded to promote abolition, but it—and the nation—are still grasping for what racial justice looks like.