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.

Carlotta Walls LaNier (born Dec. 18, 1942) graduated from Central High in 1960 and then attended Michigan State University for two years. Because she was known as one of the Little Rock Nine, her father was unable to find decent employment, and the family moved to Denver. She later earned her degree from Colorado State College and worked at the YWCA as a program administrator for teenagers. Always an independent–minded thinker, LaNier launched her own real estate brokerage company in 1977.

Melba Pattillo Beals (born Dec. 7, 1941) wrote a book about her experiences. When Beals’ “Warriors Don’t Cry” was released in 1994, it was an eloquent documentation of the trials and tribulations the nine endured. Being a pioneer was nothing new to her family, because Beals’ mother was one of the first African-Americans to graduate from the University of Arkansas in 1954.

The closing of high schools in the city affected Beals’ classes, so she moved with her family to California to complete her high school education and then continued on to San Francisco State for her degree in journalism.

“White is a State of Mind” is the sequel to her first book and follows her life after high school. She lives in the San Francisco area, where she continues to write and make public speaking appearances.

Terrence Roberts (Dec. 3, 1941) was 15 years old when he became a member of the nine. Like several others, he completed his high school requirements in California and later graduated from California State University. At UCLA, he earned his master’s degree in social work. He obtained his doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University. Widely sought as a public speaker, Roberts is also co-chairperson of the master’s program at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Born on Sept. 26, 1942, Gloria Ray Karlmark came from a very successful family, and this influenced her desire to achieve the best education. But like the others who were stifled from finishing at Central High due to the closing of the schools in the city, she moved to Missouri and attended the newly integrated Kansas City Central High School. She later graduated from Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago with a degree in chemistry and mathematics. Karlmark spent time in Europe, and while she was overseas, she established herself as an expert in computer science and robotics, particularly during her tenure at the International Business Machine’s Nordic Laboratory in Sweden. She opted for an early retirement while working in the Netherlands for Philips Lighting.

In 1958, all nine students were recipients of the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for their unwavering pursuit of civil rights, and in 1999, they were honored with Congressional Gold Medals.

It should be noted that Daisy Bates, the fearless freedom fighter from Arkansas, was a constant presence throughout the students’ ordeal, often by their side to chaperone them to classes and later chauffeur them home.

Activities

  • Find out more: The Little Rock Nine accomplished quite a bit during the challenging circumstances at Central High School. There have been a number of film productions made and books written about their lives. Beals’ “Warriors Don’t Cry” does a good job of capturing what they had to endure, and it is recommended as a very good addition to this article.
  • Discussion: A good way to get into the experience they had is to engage students in role play. Select nine students to be the Little Rock Nine with the teacher as Bates. Bates’s memoir “The Long Shadow of Little Rock” will provide the classroom with solid background material.
  • Place in context: It will be a great benefit to know what other events came before, during and after the school was integrated. Students may want to research why the governor closed the schools in Little Rock and how it affected all the students in the city.

This Week in Black History

  • Sept. 18, 1963: In St. Augustine, Fla., four NAACP members are dragged from their car and viciously beaten with chains, wrenches and ax handles. Four KKK members will later be acquitted by an all-white jury.
  • Sept. 19, 1915: Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black history, founds the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
  • Sept. 19, 1966: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and folk singer Joan Baez lead a march in Grenada, Miss., protesting the beatings of African-American school children after schools were desegregated.