In September 1957, nine Black teenagers started the new school year and changed history. Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls were all between 15 and 17 years old when they became the first Black students to enroll at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ended legal segregation in public schools. On September 4, their first day of school, instead of being welcomed by principals or teachers the nine Black students were met by a white mob and the Arkansas National Guard, ordered there by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to block them from entering the school building. The brave students made national headlines as images like those of Elizabeth Eckford trying to enter the school and being surrounded and spit on by white teenagers and adults were published across the country, and they continued to make daily headlines as they refused to give up.
Ultimately President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to call in federal troops who finally escorted the nine Black students into the school for their first full day of classes on September 25. Even with protection they continued to endure daily harassment and physical threats, but the Little Rock Nine persisted. They helped make our nation live up to the promise of Brown v. Board of Education and helped push open doors of opportunity for generations of young people who followed them. This weekend, Little Rock is hosting four days of events commemorating the 65th anniversary of the integration of Central High School, including special programs at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, a permanent national monument to the history made there. Members of the Little Rock Nine and former President Bill Clinton will be among the weekend speakers. The anniversary’s theme is “Silence is Not an Option.”
Our nation continues to owe a debt of gratitude to the Little Rock Nine and to all those who were just children and teenagers when they became frontline soldiers in the war to end Jim Crow in American life. Children and young people in the Civil Rights Movement taught us to be courageous and stand up against injustice and showed uncommon dignity, maturity, and grace that was often a direct contrast to the hate-filled adults around them. Historians like Taylor Branch and David Halberstam have recounted the incredible determination and grit of youths like the Little Rock Nine and the many others who subjected themselves to often violent resistance to help end discrimination in the American South. Their names were not just in the court papers filed by their brave parents in dozens of school desegregation cases. The Little Rock Nine, six-year-old Ruby Bridges in New Orleans, and children who followed them in schools across the country were the shock troops who parted the milling, jeering, and threatening crowds and weathered daily the hateful isolation and ugly epithets encouraged or ignored by some white adults who taught their children to spurn and insult Black classmates.
Outside of school, children faced fierce police dogs and fire hoses and filled the jails in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama when most adults hesitated to respond to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for fear of their jobs or personal safety. Children withstood arrests and tough treatment in Jackson, Mississippi and harsh treatment in Southern jails where they were detained. High school and college youths sat down until lunch counters were desegregated across the South. Young people were sometimes beaten by police for standing up for freedom. And four little girls had to die as a sacrifice in Birmingham before the nation assured Black citizens the right to vote. As Taylor Branch put it at a Children’s Defense Fund forum, “There is no precedent that I know of in recorded history for the power balance of a great nation turning on the moral witness of schoolchildren … A movement that rode through in history on the spirit of children now looks to how we treat our children [decades] later. Now we have adults who, in effect, need to pay back children.”
How will we do that? When will we do that? Giving children fair treatment, leadership, and protection today is our nation’s chance to honor the debt we owe young people. But the Children’s Defense Fund believes we can also use these examples from the Civil Rights Movement to keep reminding young people today that they are never too young to make a difference, and double down on efforts to empower the next generation of young Black servant leaders who will lead today’s movements and guide us towards a brighter future where children, especially our most marginalized, are provided every opportunity to thrive.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to childrensdefense.org.