Beyond the Little Rock Nine

Help students connect history to the present by including lesser-known events and milestones when you teach the history of school integration.
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Photography by Bettmann/Getty Images

Your students are probably familiar with the Little Rock Nine—a courageous group of black students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 against a backdrop of violent protesters and, eventually, the Arkansas National Guard. They may recognize the photographs of these brave students or remember their stories.

But are they aware that the same scenario played out again and again across U.S. cities for the next several decades? Are they able to connect this past to how they access their education today? 

It's possible that they cannot, as the narrative about school desegregation in the United States tends to be simplified and accelerated. Schools were segregated, the story goes, and then Little Rock Nine happened, and now everything is fine.  

It’s a good time to delve into this history. We’re approaching the 65th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling—when the United States Supreme Court ruled that separating school children by race was unconstitutional. 

Brown was progress in that it was a legal win. But many communities struggled to comply with the law well into the 1980s and even beyond. It took the work of activist organizations, students and federal judges to force some school districts to comply. And by the 1990s, many previously integrated districts started to see a return to segregated schools. 

Reviewing this history and showing how it parallels with issues today can help students better understand the importance of equitable educational facilities and recognize their power to participate in our democratic society. 

This article is part of our series on teaching Black History Month. Read the others for a comprehensive approach to teaching this important part of American history:

The Opposition: Then

The events that unfolded in Little Rock didn’t happen in a vacuum. The fight to ensure students of color received an equal education had gone on for years prior to 1957. The NAACP began pushing for desegregation in the 1930s, and in 1947 a federal appeals court struck down segregated schooling for Mexican American and white students in Mendez v. Westminster. 

Two years before national guardsmen escorted the nine Little Rock students to class, a school in Mansfield, Texas, began a sustained campaign opposing the Brown ruling, perhaps motivating other states to push back as well. Following what was deemed the Mansfield Crisis, Texan officials sued the NAACP, an organization that fought for desegregation and other civil rights in the state. Their lawsuit inspired Southern states, including Alabama and Virginia, to bring similar suits to thwart desegregation efforts. 

Some historians believe the drama in Texas emboldened governors, such as Arkansas’s Orval Faubus, to challenge the students in Little Rock. While federal officials turned a blind eye in Texas, President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to protect the students trying to integrate Central High School in Little Rock. But the move wasn’t enough to deter some state officials from clinging to segregationist ideals

As part of Virginia’s Massive Resistance, Charlottesville city officials ignored an order to desegregate in 1958. Rather than accepting black students at white schools, then-Governor Lindsay Almond ordered all public schools in Charlottesville, Warren County and the City of Norfolk to close. When the schools reopened a year later, black students were still prevented from attending. It took the act of a district judge and the bravery of The Charlottesville 12 to finally integrate a white school in 1959. 

Resistance to Brown wasn’t isolated to the South. When you talk about desegregation with your students, show them how resistance also played out in Northern cities like Boston and Chicago, where white protesters often reacted violently to integration efforts. When a federal judge ordered schools in Pontiac, Michigan, to integrate in 1970, for example, protesters responded by firebombing school buses. In California, then-Governor Ronald Reagan opposed busing as well as other civil rights policies.


The Opposition: Now

Learning about the history of school segregation can help students see some of the same issues unfolding before their eyes today. During desegregation, as the federal government enforced the law, white citizens resorted to residential segregation and white flight, resulting once more in segregated schools.

Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, explained in a recent interview that it’s not too difficult for students to come to the conclusion that “government sponsorship ... created racial segregation.” Engaging the causes behind segregation and recognizing our responsibility to address it, he noted, “Residential segregation is an unconstitutional creation of government, a violation of civil rights that should be remedied.”

Today, hundreds of schools remain under desegregation orders, monitored to ensure that historically marginalized students receive the educational opportunities to which they are entitled. During the 2015-16 school year, 334 districts were under desegregation orders. 


The Courage of Students

Teachers can empower students by emphasizing the role of young people in challenging segregation at different points in history. 

For decades, students in the South and their families actively petitioned local officials to improve the conditions of their schools, which were separate but never equal. Before desegregation, books in black schools were outdated and torn, and buildings were dilapidated. 

For a lesson from history, students can look at the case of Adkin High School in Kinston, North Carolina. Knowing that their facilities were considerably different from the white school in town, students and their families consistently asked for upgrades such as a library, new books and additional classrooms. 

Initially, the school board claimed they had no funding to provide what students asked for, and the local paper chastised the more than 700 students who quietly marched into town one November day in 1951 for their cause. But through their tenacity and their insistence that they deserved an education, the community finally received what they’d asked for—resources to ensure they received the same education that their white counterparts were allowed. 

Another, often-understudied fact is that the majority of the students who bravely integrated their schools before and after Brown were girls, some as young as 6. Author Rachel Devlin writes in her book A Girl Stands at the Door, “There was, in the post-World War II era, a strong … cultural assumption that the war to end school desegregation was a girls’ war.” Students may be interested to discuss the intersectional dynamics that resulted in disproportionate numbers of black girls being at the forefront of desegregation efforts.  

Finally, students can learn about the activist work their peers are doing. In recent years, we continue to see students assert their power through walk-outs. The students at Tucson Unified School District, for example, protested the dissolution of an ethnic studies program which had been included in the district’s desegregation order. And students will surely remember—or maybe participated in—the 2018 March for Our Lives youth walk-outs in support of school safety measures. 

These events, past and present, not only provide a connection to lessons about the more celebrated Brown ruling but also remind students that young people have a place in a democratic society. They, too, can make their grievances known to ensure they receive a safe and equitable education. 


Classroom Discussions

Use these guiding tips to discuss the history of segregated education and how it affects students today. 


Discuss why it’s important to achieve desegregated schools

Share with students our interview with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who explains how segregated schools not only affect marginalized students but also society as a whole.


Recognize the pioneers

Highlight the work of young people who faced great risks to integrate schools, from Sylvia Mendez and the Little Rock Nine to Linda Brown and Ruby Bridges. Also, acknowledge the works of Thurgood Marshall and Daisy Bates, who spearheaded desegregation efforts. 


Research and study your community’s desegregation story

Students need to know their local history and how it shapes their education today. No matter where you live, chances are there’s an extraordinary history centered on equal education and social justice in your community.   


Connect to the present

In Civil Rights Done Right, we offer five essential practices, which includes connecting history to the present. Our article “Little Rock Helps Students Connect with History” explains how teachers can use the 1957 incident to apply themes of change and continuity to their lives. 

Dillard is staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.