On this day in history, 1957, under escort by the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, nine black students entered all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three weeks earlier, Governor Orval Faubus had surrounded the school with state National Guard troops to prevent execution of a federal court order – that the school achieve racial integration. Blocked at the door, the students endured intense verbal abuse from a white mob.
At one point, Elizabeth Eckford was surrounded and threatened with lynching. After a tense standoff, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and also sent in the paratroopers to enforce the court order. After Eisenhower’s action, the Little Rock Nine entered the school, where some white students made additional verbal and physical assaults on the newcomers. Melba Pattillo had acid thrown in her eyes, and Eckford was pushed down a flight of stairs. The male students in the group were subjected to more conventional beatings.
Change never comes easily. As a son of the South, I am embarrassed for segregation – and the reluctance to integrate. When I was a child growing up in Houston, we still had “colored drinking fountains” at the Houston Zoo. My junior high school had just eight blacks. And fights were a common affair.
In today’s culture, it is easy to see how far we still have to go. But when we look back a bit, we can rejoice to see how far we have already come.