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Hate and School Integration in the South

Little Rock Nine being escorted to Central HS

Imagine someone spitting on your skin, your clothes, your face. Imagine grown men and women cussing at you, yelling at you, threatening you. Imagine those adults standing side by side with their children who are also yelling, threatening and doing their best to intimidate you for wanting to be a classmate of theirs. This was experienced by nine black students in Little Rock, Arkansas for simply wanting to go to the same school as these parents’ children attend.

Where does hate go?

Many of the white parents present at Little Rock’s Central HS on September 4, 1957 were modeling hate for their children to see and unfortunately take on as their own. They seem, as evidenced by their behavior, to believe that these 9 students were not worthy of respect, civility, or even the basic act of decency. These adults devalued these young Americans.

Not only were these families blocking entry but the Governor of Arkansas ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block these students entry to the school as well. These were grown men in a quasi-military role who stood as a wall keeping 9 teenagers who were federally mandated to attend from entering the school.

One of the students, Elizabeth Eckford was quoted in the May 1974 issue of Ebony:

“I walked up to the guard who had let the white students in.... When I tried to squeeze past him, he raised his bayonet and then the other guards closed in and they raised their bayonets. They glared at me with a mean look and I was very frightened and didn’t know what to do. I turned around and the crowd came toward me . . . . I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me. They came closer, shouting, “No nigger bitch is going to get in our school. Get out of here!”

The old woman who spat on Ms. Eckford was possibly a parent or a grandparent. What led her to do something so despicable and with apparently no shame about the example she was setting for her kids or her grandkids?

Where does hate go?

This was 1957. The white high school students that were present and participated in this state sanctioned harassment are in their 80’s if they are still alive at the time of this writing. Their kids have kids. Did they mellow out as time went on? At any point did they look back and regret their actions?

Some of these white students appeared on Oprah in 1996 to apologize face to face to 7 of the Little Rock Nine. One shared that her family was racist and she felt pressured to harass the black students. Another one befriended one of the black students and her family received hate phone calls, hate mail and was ostracized. A third guy spoke about how he witnessed how other white kids treated the black students and did nothing and how he regrets it now.

The community was so against allowing Central HS to be integrated, that 1 year later, the Arkansas Governor closed all of Little Rock’s public high schools for the entire year, pending a public vote, to prevent African American attendance. Little Rock citizens voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration and the schools remained closed for the 1958-1959 school year affecting over 3500 students. The. Entire. School. Year.

The teachers were kept under contract and they were required to show up at school with no students.

Where does hate go?

There have been a number of articles, movies and books chronicling the experience of the Little Rock Nine and the members of the community that fought to help turn things around.

Marquette University has a great list here.

The Equal Justice Initiave Entry for February 9th is:

Home of Carlotta Walls, of the Little Rock Nine, Bombed

On February 9, 1960, just four weeks before her graduation, a bomb exploded at the home of Carlotta Walls, the youngest member of the original “Little Rock Nine," who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

In September 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock's Central High School by barring nine newly admitted Black students from entering the school building. In order to compel the school's integration, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and ordered troops to escort the students into the school, but the students were still confronted by angry white crowds of students and adults. That group of Black students came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, and 14-year-old Carlotta Walls was the youngest among them.

In response to the admission of the Little Rock Nine, hundreds of white people attacked Black residents and reporters, causing nationally publicized “chaos, bedlam, and turmoil” that led a federal court to halt desegregation. The Supreme Court overturned that decision and ordered immediate integration, but in a move voters later approved in a referendum, Governor Faubus closed all public high schools in Little Rock for the 1958-1959 school year.

Carlotta Walls later described the integration experience as "painful" and recalled that Central High's white students fell into three groups: those who tormented her and the other Black students; those who sympathized with them; and those who silently ignored the way they were treated.

Despite the open hostility that she encountered, young Carlotta Walls remained at Central throughout her high school years. On February 9, 1960, four weeks before graduation, a bomb exploded at her home. Carlotta, her mother, and her sister were at home but no one was injured by the blast. Police arrested and beat Carlotta Walls' father in unsuccessful efforts to coerce a confession. Police then arrested two young Black men, Herbert Monts, a family friend, and Maceo Binns, Jr. Carlotta Walls never believed either man was responsible, but both were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

In 2010, Ms. Walls described the bombing and its aftermath as the worst part of the integration experience, and firmly asserted that "the segregationists were behind all of it—the bombing and the arrests of Herbert and Maceo.”

The massive resistance by the white community, like the violence Ms. Walls faced, was largely successful in preventing integration of schools in the South. In the five Deep South states, every single one of 1.4 million Black school children attended segregated schools until the fall of 1960. By the start of the 1964-65 school year, less than 3% of the South’s African American children attended school with white students, and in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina that number remained substantially below 1%. In 1967, 13 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights observed that white violence and intimidation against Black people “continues to be a deterrent to school desegregation.”

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