Join me this week as I start a series on the nine children who were the first to desegregate schools in the south. Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Terrence Roberts, Minniejean Brown, Jefferson Allison Thomas, Gloria Ray, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Pattillo were all just teenagers seeking the best education possible.
History has dubbed them the Little Rock Nine; this week I provide the background to their story, including touching a little of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education. Tune in next week as I share more information about the students themselves and how their efforts influenced school policy for future generations.
Roberts, Terrence. Lessons from Little Rock. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. 2013.
Additional Sources Used This Episode:
Gloria Cecelia Ray KARLMARK (1942–). Encyclopedia of Arkansas. (2019, December 30). (LINK)
Melba Patillo Beals (1941-). Encyclopedia of Arkansas. (2018, February 13). (LINK)
Eckford, E. (n.d.). In her own Words: Elizabeth Eckford. Facing History and Ourselves. (LINK)
Sept. 12, 1958: Little Rock public schools closed. Zinn Education Project. (2020, September 13). (LINK)
Song Used This Episode:
Oh Freedom by Golden Gospel Singers.
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The song played during the opening quote is Oh Freedom, sung by the Golden Gospel Singers. It is a protest song with origins in the Civil Rights Movement and I think perfectly captures the grit and fortitude demonstrated by the nine individuals who I will be exploring more this week.
Last time, I started the story about the little rock nine. The children who volunteered to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. This episode will go into more about their life after that first year at Central and the aftermath of their efforts. So if you haven’t already listened to part one, go do so now.
This episode I am going to highlight and celebrate the nine brave kids who risked their lives and mental health: Ernest Green, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Minnijean Brown, Melba Pattillo Beals, Thelma Mothershed and Carlotta Walls LaNier.
Grab your cup of coffee peeps, lets do this.
I provided the background and context of how the little rock nine came to be on the last episode. As a refresh, in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education that segregated schools was unconstitutional.
After a bit of a battle, the city of Little Rock was forced to accept the enrollment of nine black students into their previously all white school, Central High School. But attending school with their white counterparts was just part of the war these nine children were thrust into. While they may have been protected from the mobs of white segregationists congregating outside the school doors, no one could shield the students once they were inside.
Throughout the school year, each student was forced to endure verbal assaults, physical intimidation and violence. Instead of focusing on getting the best education possible, the little rock nine had to prepare for battle every day. Despite the efforts of many to get them to give up and go home, those nine students persevered and not only finished their education, but also went on to shut down all the haters through continuing education and even starting their own businesses.
Their efforts to integrate were met with such disdain and anger that the state of Arkansas decided they would rather deny education to all of Little Rock’s students than to see their high school integrated. In 1958, Governor Faubus used recently passed state laws to shut down all four of the high schools in Little Rock. This denied 3,665 students - black and white - access to public education.
This led to the rise of private schools, who were more than happy to accommodate white students and could remain segregated since they were outside of the purview of the Supreme Court decision. The state legislature even considered some interesting bills that may sound oddly familiar. One bill required teachers to sign affidavits listing which organizations they belonged and another bill outright fired any teacher who was a member of the NAACP.
The school closure is one reason so many of the Little Rock nine spread throughout the country to continue their education. Unable to go back to their all black school and barred from attending private schools in the area, they had little choice but to either wait it out or seek other options. Now, let’s dive in to learn more about the students who took on the system and their fellow citizens in an effort to get a better education, shall we?
Thelma Mothershed was the oldest of the Little Rock Nine, born November 20, 1940 and was one of six children. Born with a cardiac condition, she maintained a nearly perfect attendance record, despite the daily torments. After the 1957 school year, Thelma took correspondence classes so she could graduate on time.
After successfully completing her courses and receiving her diploma in the mail, Mothershed graduated from Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 1964 and earned her masters degree in guidance and counseling in 1970. Despite her traumatizing experience as a student at Little Rock, Mothershed went on to become a teacher. She taught for nearly thirty years in Eastern St Louis before retiring in 1994.
Ernest Green was the first black student to graduate from Central High School on May 27, 1958. He was born on September 22nd, 1941 and was a member of the boy scouts, eventually earning the title of eagle scout. Like the other children, Green volunteered to be one of the first to integrate Central High School and transferred as a senior. Of his time at Central, Green said, “It was like going to war every day.”
After graduation, Ernest attended Michigan State University where he received an anonymous scholarship to attend. He found out later the sponsor of his scholarship was university president John A Hannah. Ernest graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1962 and his masters in sociology 1964. He served in President Jimmy Carter’s administration from 1977 to 1981 as an assistant secretary of labor.
Jefferson Allison Thomas is the one member of the group where details are a bit minimal. He was born September 19, 1942 making him one of the youngest of the nine. He was a track athlete prior to enrolling in Central High School and was named after the third president of the United States Thomas Jefferson. He graduated in 1960 and later went to Wayne State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and later served in Vietnam. After his service, Thomas worked as a civil servant and gave talks to high schools and universities. He passed away in 2010 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 67.
Terrence Roberts was born on December 3rd, 1941 and only attended Central High School for one year in 1957. Because of the decision to shut down public schools the following year, Terrence moved to California and graduated from Los Angeles High School. He attended Cal State University Los Angeles and in 1967 graduated with a bachelor’s in Sociology. He continued his educational pursuit, earning his masters in Social Welfare in 1970. Not yet finished, he earned his PhD in Psychology from Southern Illinois University in 1976.
Roberts was a member of the faculty at Pacific Union College in Napa Valley, California and is the CEO of his consulting firm Terrence Roberts Consulting. He wrote a book about his experience at Central High School, titled Lessons from Little Rock published in 2009.
Carlotta Walls, the youngest of the little rock nine, was born December 18, 1942 and was the first black female student to graduate from Central. Her decision to volunteer to desegregate the high school came when her homeroom teacher shared with the class the possibility of enrolling into the all white school. Carlotta signed up immediately, without telling her parents who did not find out until the registration card arrived over the summer.
Carlotta, like her other classmates, was routinely harassed, spat on and kicked while walking the halls of the school. Her family was also the victim of a vicious intimidation ploy when two sticks of dynamite were placed in her home and blew up on February 9, 1960. Luckily no one was injured and Walls, refusing to buckle to the pressure to leave, showed up to class the next day.
Not only did she show up, but she kicked academic butt. She made the honor roll and after graduating, went to Michigan State University before moving to Colorado and earning her bachelor’s degree from Colorado State College. In 1977, she founded her own real estate brokerage firm and has also written a book about her experiences titled A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.
Gloria Ray Karlmark was fifteen at the time of her enrollment into the high school. Born on September 26, 1942 Gloria was working to complete her junior year of highschool. Like the rest of her classmates, daily attendance at Central proved challenging. She was taunted every day; physically assaulted and called names all in an effort to get her to drop out. Following the fallout from their attendance and the closure of schools in Little Rock, Karlmark completed her studies at a high school in Kansas City. She graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1965 with a Bachelor’s in Chemistry and Mathematics, In 1976, she co-founded a journal about computers titled Computers in Industry and moved to Sweden to join IBM as a systems analyst and technical writer. While living in Sweden, Karlmark attended law school and earned her degree, working as a patent attorney for IBM.
Melba Pattillo Beals volunteered for Central after realizing she wasn’t getting the same level of education in her all black segregated school. Born December 7, 1941 Melba grew up in a family that highlighted the importance of education. Her mother, Lois, was one of the first black graduates of the University of Arkansas where she earned her PhD and taught English. Of her experience at Central, Melba shared what a soldier assigned to protect her told her, “in order to get through this year, you will have to become a soldier. Never let your enemy know what you are feeling.”
Melba had to complete her education in California, staying with a family who agreed to provide support for her while she finished high school. While I am saddened that she had to move halfway across the country to earn her high school diploma, I was a little proud to learn she completed her education in my area of Northern California, graduating from Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa. She then attended San Francisco State University and earned her bachelors degree in journalism. She continued her educational pursuit, earning a masters from Columbia in the same field. In 2009, Beals earned a doctoral degree in education from the university of San Francisco. She has written books about her life, including her time at Central. Warriors Don’t Cry is a memoir dedicated to her time trying to integrate the south and is where I pulled the opening quote. Her other memoir, White is State of Mind is the second part of her life, starting where Warriors ended.
Of the nine students selected to break the color barrier at the Arkansas High School, only Minnijean Brown Trickey didn’t make it to the end of the school year. Trickey seemed to struggle with the pressure on her shoulders to be the perfect student and icon for a whole movement. Unlike her fellow black classmates, Trickey was not able to suffer in silence at the daily torments being lobbed in her direction and began to fight back. Trickey responded to one of her tormentors, calling them “white trash” which earned her a suspension. In December, Trickey was trying to move through the cafeteria with her lunch tray and as she squeezed past the students, someone kicked a chair at her, causing her to drop her tray, spilling food contents onto a white student. Initially she was suspended for six days, but eventually she was expelled and was forced to finish her education in New York.
After completing her high school education, Trickey went on to attend Southern Illinois University and majored in journalism. She lived and studied in Canada, earning her masters in Social Work from Carleton University in Ottawa. She came back to the United States and worked in the Clinton Administration for 2 years, serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Workforce Diversity from 1999 to 2001.
I shared part of Elizabeth Eckford’s story in the previous episode as she is the one who is captured in the infamous photograph. Born October 4th, 1941, Elizabeth was 16 on that September day when she faced the hostile crowd threatening to lynch her. Of her decision to go to Central, Elizabeth said, “I expected that there may be something more available to me at Central that was not available at Dunbar; that there might be more courses I could pursue; that there were more options available. I was not prepared for what actually happened.”
After the school’s closure following the 1957 school year, Elizabeth took night classes to ensure she earned enough credits to graduate on time. She eventually earned a Bachelor’s degree in History from Central State University in Ohio and spent five years in the military under the U.S. army.
When asked why they would endanger themselves, their family and their neighbors for the sake of school integration, each of the little rock nine had a similar answer - they wanted a better education.
In 1999, all nine former students were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian honors available in the United States. The Medal, given to the little rock nine by then President Bill Clinton, is typically given to those “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history.”
The remaining living little now rock are in their seventies and are enjoying a much deserved and well earned retirement. Several of them have written memoirs of their experiences and I will be sure to list those memoirs in the show notes for this episode.
Unfortunately while we honor their memories with stories and interviews on the anniversaries of their integration, school diversity is still a widespread problem facing the United States. According to a 2016 government accountability office survey, the number of schools isolated along racial and economic lines doubled between 2000 and 2013. The idea of desegregation can no longer be referred to as a southern problem; it is a national problem. This isolation has tangible impacts on the lives and welfare of the students who are forced to attend these schools. Often these schools are underfunded and therefore provide less academically challenging course work that better prepares students for college.
And so the fight started by the little rock nine continues today, albeit under a very different set of circumstances. Though schools may not look the way many hoped when they took on the fight, the students who fought to integrate the education system in Little Rock, Arkansas are an example of the power of the average citizen, committed to equity and justice for their neighbor. As Melba Patillo Beals shares in the opening pages of her memoir, “if one person is denied equality, we are all denied equality.”
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