The footage tells the story.
In September 1957, two of many images, one a film and the other a picture, showed all Americans the character of some tremendous young people. The film showed how far the federal government was willing to go to ensure equality amongst the citizens of the country. The portrait showed the quiet dignity of an individual going farther than anyone before.
As the school year began in Little Rock, Arkansas that fall, nine black students were registered to attend one of the best high schools in the state. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the school system there decided to integrate the then all-white Central High School.
Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, playing to white southern segregationists, vowed to stop the students from entering the school on Sept. 3. He was a moderate leader, but worried he would lose the next election if he did not side with them. He ordered the Arkansas National Guard to stop the students from entering. They did. One of the ‘Little Rock Nine” as they came to be called, missed the meeting point that morning, and walked to school alone. She soon was surrounded by a mob. A white woman came out of the crowd and helped her to safety.
In the days ahead, Gov. Faubus conferred with President Eisenhower. Faubus told the president he had the situation under control. Eisenhower trusted Faubus and wanted to stay out of a perceived ‘state issue.’ However, the next time the students tried to enter the high school, there was a riot. They were removed from the school by police out of fear for their safety. By then, as Civil Rights Historian, Taylor Branch, writes, “Ike, reluctantly but decisively, dispatched the 101st Air Division” to Little Rock in order to enforce the Brown decision. It was Sept. 24. The following day, the “Little Rock Nine” walked up the front steps of the school guarded by federal troops.
Although the year was tremendously hard for the students, they endured with the help of an individual soldier assigned to them. Eight out of nine students finished the year. By 1959, schools in Little Rock were fully integrated.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, that same month, a 15-year-old girl by the name of Dorothy Counts integrated Harding High School on Sept. 4. Walking with a friend of the family, she moved through the crowd of many angry white students and parents. There were shouts encouraging people to spit on her, and some did. Other detractors threw things at her, but she made it into the school.
The well-regarded columnist for the Charlotte Observer, Kays Gary, wrote an exceptional piece the following day describing the young girl and her courage. He writes, “Debris fell on her shoulders and around her feet. And the posture of her head was unchanged. That was the remarkable thing. And if her skin was brown you had to admit that her courage was royal purple. For how many of us could have taken that walk to and from school?”
Ms. Counts did not finish the school year at Harding High, but she had integrated it.
The film footage of the ‘Little Rock Nine” entering Central High School surrounded by federal escort is a reminder of the power of the federal government to enforce the major laws a country makes. President Eisenhower explained this to the American people in a nationally televised address to the nation the same day he ordered 101st Airborne troops to Little Rock. To his credit, the president moved to enforce the law when Gov. Faubus proved unwilling to do so. Today, statues of the ‘Little Rock Nine’ are displayed near Central High School, which is still a working school and a national historic site.
Douglas Martin’s photos of Ms. Counts entering her high school amidst the mob expresses the dignity and toughness of a young adolescent moving history forward just like the nine black students half a nation away did at virtually the same time. The media coverage of both events helped many see the struggle for school integration more clearly.
Presently, Ms. Counts-Scoggins has a bench in her honor outside the original site for Harding High School. She still speaks about her experiences which motivated other students to integrate schools in North Carolina.
Public schools are more segregated than ever. Perhaps not by race, but by class. There are gaps in funding across states and counties. Recently, the shutdowns caused by the pandemic have revealed further inequities yet to be resolved. Still, students of all races and backgrounds have opportunities to be successful because of the courage of 10 black kids in September of 1957.
M. Brent Tomberlin II is a social studies teacher and department co-chair at South Caldwell High School.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!