Fifty years ago this month, a high school in the U.S. southern city of Little Rock, Arkansas became a crucial battleground in the struggle for civil rights. Despite prejudice and hostility from a mob of white demonstrators, nine black students attended their first full day of classes at previously all-white Central High School on September 25, 1957. VOA's Deborah Block has the story of the courageous group who became known as "the Little Rock Nine."
Elizabeth Eckford was on her way to Central High School when she was confronted with racial slurs from angry white demonstrators. "They were almost immediately on my heels. Nobody actually touched me other than spit on me. I felt terrified."
Three years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In Little Rock, high schools were to integrate by September 1957.
Several weeks before school started, Arkansas's governor ordered the state militia to block the nine black students from entering the school. The U.S. president stepped in and sent the army to escort them.
Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, had not expected such stiff resistance, especially since some school districts in Arkansas had already admitted blacks. He says about 50 of the 2,000 white students began a reign of terror in the school hallways.
"In the beginning we had the military soldiers that served as our individual guards and went from class to class with us. After they left the inside of the school mid-year sometime, was when the hostility, violence and intimidation really increased. They began to intimidate those (white) students who tried to befriend us.”
Eckford recalls an unwritten rule,"The rule was that we were not to talk back or strike back and if we did we would be expelled. One of the things that hurt is that so many people turned their backs and didn't acknowledge what was happening."
The Little Rock Nine had volunteered to transfer from a local black school to one of the best high schools in the country. They were good students who were hoping for a better education and a chance to go to college. Ernest says they were happy about their prospects. "The prevailing attitude was that African-Americans in Little Rock, as I saw it, and in the south, were happy with segregated life. That wasn't my attitude and I thought that if I had a chance, at some point in my life, to show that was not my attitude, I wanted to be able to step forward and do it."
Johanna Miller Lewis is a history professor at the University of Arkansas. She says the Little Rock Nine helped pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "I think it was a signal moment, especially to African-Americans that you, the individual, can make a difference."
Ernest Green attended Central during his last year of high school. He remembers graduation day. "The silence was kind of eerie. The only people clapping were my family. As I walked across that stage and got that diploma, I really didn't need anybody to clap. The silence made the statement and I felt that I had accomplished what I'd come there for."
The following school term the Arkansas governor shut down Central High School for a year. When it re-opened only two of the remaining Little Rock Nine returned.
Today the school is nearly split between black and white and is still one of the best high schools in the country. Student Dillon Hupp says, "The courage that they had, I can't imagine anyone I know who would have the courage to do that today."
Tafi Mukunyadzi also attends Central High. Her parents are from Zimbabwe and came to the U.S. to better their lives. She says her generation takes racial integration for granted. "We live in a world that is so mixed that we have to live together, so we're learning to do that. And as teenagers we all feel very comfortable with that but we can't become too comfortable because then we cannot continue to progress."
Today Elizabeth Eckford is a probation officer in Little Rock. She never went back to Central High School and took correspondent courses at home to graduate. "I found to talk about the past becomes a pain, something you have to work your way through. It has had a very, very deep and significant impact on my life."
Ernest Green works for a global investment firm in Washington, D.C. "The idea I had as a teenager about change, opportunity and the importance of education. And now 50 years later to look back on it, I made the right decision."