How American Airbornes Saved Black Students from the Crowd - September 24, 1957, Arkansas
Post-war America suffered from a number of cultural controversies, and the most prominent one was that, despite fighting side by side during WWII against Nazism, Black and White Americans were still segregated at home. Just imagine German POWs held in American prison camps could attend dining rooms for “Whites only”, whilst Black soldiers in the American Army could only enter the ones for “Blacks only”. So White soldiers and officers of the U.S. Army would rather sit at the table with their war-time enemies than with their own comrades of different color.
The 1950s is often referred to as the “golden era” of America: consumerism, domesticity and the “good life” seemed to mature in an ideal manner. And yet, the world didn’t stay at one place. Changes were simply inevitable regarding the out-of-date, medieval and cruel practices existing in America at that time. And racial segregation was the shining example of it.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483, on May 17, 1954. Tied to the 14th Amendment, the decision declared all laws establishing segregated schools to be unconstitutional, and it called for the desegregation of all schools throughout the nation. Yet, it was obvious the attitude of the society towards colored students couldn’t be changed that easily.
The protests against this law echoed all across America. Traditionalists didn’t want their children to study in desegregated schools with minorities — especially with Blacks. Black organizations, on the other hand, felt like they had a chance to change the discriminatory politics, so they took action. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became one of the main organizations stood for the rights of the Blacks. It would be superfluous to mention the situation in the South, where the Klan still held strong positions, was much more difficult and serious than in the “enlightened” Northern states.
“The Little Rock Nine” was a group of Black adolescents enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Called the "Little Rock Nine", they were Ernest Green (b. 1941), Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), Jefferson Thomas (1942–2010), Terrence Roberts (b. 1941), Carlotta Walls LaNier (b. 1942), Minnijean Brown (b. 1941), Gloria Ray Karlmark (b. 1942), Thelma Mothershed (b. 1940), and Melba Pattillo Beals (b. 1941). Of note, Ernest Green was the first African American to graduate from Central High School.
The Southern crowd didn’t welcome the decision of the Supreme Court and the attempts of NAACP to enroll Black children in their local high school, so they started a rally against it with the sole intention of stopping the children from going to the school.
Several segregationist councils threatened to hold protests at Central High and physically block the black students from entering the school. Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to support the segregationists on September 4, 1957. The sight of a line of soldiers blocking the students made national headlines and polarized the nation.
Regarding the crowd, one of the nine students, Elizabeth Eckford, recalled:
“They moved closer and closer. Somebody started yelling. I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd, someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me…”.
Only with the help of the soldiers of 101st Airborne Division did the Black students managed to make it into the high school. The 101st was one of the most prominent divisions of the U.S. Army, and it had fought in Normandy, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of The Bulge and the Western Allied Invasion in Germany, as well as in the Korean War. Ten years after the events in Little Rock, the 101st would face severe combat in Vietnam.
Elements of the 101st Division's 1st Airborne Battle Group, the 327th Infantry, were ordered to Little Rock by President Eisenhower himself to escort the students into the formerly segregated school during the crisis. The division was under the command of Major General Edwin Walker, who was committed to protecting the Black students.
The troops were deployed in Little Rock and its suburbs from September until Thanksgiving 1957, when Task Force 153rd Infantry (the Federalized Arkansas Army National Guard), which had also been on duty at the school since 24 September, assumed the responsibility.
Despite the fact the breakthrough of “The Little Rock Nine” was unable to put an end to the practice of segregation in the States, this event marked a great achievement of the African-American community, and is now celebrated as a true feat of nine brave teenagers.