The Little Rock Nine—yesterday and today

Herb Boyd | 9/20/2013, 11:35 a.m.
When classes began at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., on Sept. 4, 1957, the nine Black students who ...
Little Rock 9

When classes began at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., on Sept. 4, 1957, the nine Black students who had been selected to integrate the school were blocked from entry by orders from Gov. Orval Faubus. A staunch segregationist, Faubus dispatched the National Guard to the school, and this would be the beginning of weeks of confrontation that would eventually force President Dwight Eisenhower to send U.S. Army troops to enforce court-ordered desegregation.

Three years after Brown v. the Board of Education rocked the nation, these nine brave young students, escorted by federal troops, marched into their classes and broke the color barrier. They were determined to succeed in an atmosphere brimming with violence and hatred.

This major event in American history is often cited as a milestone, but many forget to provide more than a passing nod to the young people who bravely withstood the taunts and insults from their white classmates and their parents.

The oldest of the “Little Rock Nine” was Ernest Green. Born Sept. 22, 1941, he was entering his senior year and would be the first African-American to earn a high school diploma from the school. Of the nine, he would be the most celebrated; he became an assistant secretary of labor for employment and training during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.

Elizabeth Eckford (Oct. 4, 1941) is often depicted in a flowing dress with a mob of white folks surrounding her, calling her all sorts of names. But she was unfazed by their chants and, clutching her school books, defied the crowd. Unlike Green, she did not graduate from Central High, but she did earn a diploma by taking correspondence courses. She served five years in the military and had a number of jobs, and later became a probation officer in Little Rock.

Quiet and unassuming, Jefferson Thomas (Sept. 19, 1942-Sept. 5, 2010) was a scholar-athlete, and despite the daily harassment he endured, he graduated from Central High in May 1960. Subsequently, he attended Wayne State University in Detroit, and by the mid-1960s, he was living in Los Angeles, where he was a treasurer of the NAACP’s Youth Council and state president of the Progressive Baptist Youth Convention. He retired after 27 years as a civil servant in the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Columbus, Ohio. He was the first of the Little Rock Nine to die.

Thelma Mothershed-Wair, who was often viewed as the leader of the nine, was born on Nov. 29, 1940, in Bloomburg, Texas. She had attended two other high schools before enrolling at Central, but she only completed her junior year there because the city’s schools were closed in 1958. Like Eckford, she earned her diploma through correspondence courses. She taught home economics in the East St. Louis school system for 28 years before retiring in 1994.

Perhaps the most combative of the nine was Minnijean Brown-Trickey, born on Sept. 11, 1941. Rather than tolerate the name-calling and taunting, Brown-Trickey fought back and was expelled for retaliating. After a brief stint in New York City’s school system, she moved to Canada and studied social work at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. She has since returned to Little Rock to be with her mother, sister and her daughter.