Eisenhower and the Little Rock Nine

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

Diary of President Eisenhower (Dwight D Eisenhower Presidential Library)
Diary of President Eisenhower (Dwight D Eisenhower Presidential Library)

Over a half-century ago this month, nine black students entered the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, escorted by troops of the 101st Airborne Division.

The enrollment of the nine students was the historic response to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education.  The high court had determined that segregation was unconstitutional, and so desegregation was imminent.

Arkansas governor Orval Faubus felt differently. He deployed the Arkansas National Guard to Central High School, where the first black students were slated to attend. Mobs gathered outside the school. Some threatened to lynch the students.It was 1957.

Four years earlier, sat with the governor of another southern state to talk “about the possibility of a Supreme Court ruling that would abolish segregation in public schools of the country.”  Eisenhower later wrote in his diary:

Improvement in race relations is one of those things that will be healthy and sound only if it starts locally. I do not believe that prejudices, even palpably unjustified prejudices, will succumb to compulsion. Consequently, I believe that Federal law imposed upon our states in such a way as to bring about a conflict of the police powers of the states and of the nation, would set back the cause of progress in race relations for a long, long time.

By 1957, Eisenhower would do that which he feared. He federalized the Arkansas National Guard and deployed the 101st Airborne Division to forcibly desegregate Central High School. Faubus did not go down without a fight. He shut the school down in 1958 and 1959. While nine students entered in 1957, only two returned when the school reopened in the 1959-60 school year.

One of those students was Jefferson Thomas, who died yesterday at the age of 68. Much has changed since he passed through the doors of Central High School, including the election of the nation’s first African American President.

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