When they still were in their early teens, these brave young women withstood jeers from hostile crowds in the nation’s first major fight over racial integration in public schools.
On September 23, 1957, nine black students were escorted by police into Little Rock Central High School in an attempt to desegregate the school. Three years earlier, in Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court ruled that "separate is inherently unequal.” That decision overturned the segregated school systems that had existed since the 1890 Supreme Court ruled that racially separate schools were acceptable. The 1954 case was courageously brought by Linda Brown, a grade-school girl in Topeka, Kansas, who was forced to walked past a neighborhood school for whites on her way to one limited to blacks.
Because of the reluctance of white parents, students, and local government officials, it took three years until black students in Little Rock, Arkansas attempted to integrate a large high school. The world watched them go to historic Central High School every day, despite incidences of verbal and physical attacks. Arkansas’ governor closed Little Rock schools rather than integrate, and President Dwight Eisenhower responded with federal troops to carry out the Supreme Court decision. The saga went on for most of two years, making the "Little Rock Nine" very instrumental in the quest for civil rights.
The quest was led by state NAACP president Daisy Bates, who herself was only 35. She withstood arrest, bombing and shooting attacks on her home, and twice being hung in effigy. The young people she recruited to the cause included three boys and six girls. They were:
Melba Pattillo Beals, who was born on December 7, 1941 in Little Rock, Arkansas. At sixteen, Melba was inspired by her visit to Cincinnati, where schools were integrated. In the fall of 1957, she registered to attend the all-white Central High to receive a better education. Throughout her time at Central High, she depended on the support of her grandmother, India, who wanted a better life for her grandchild than she had lived. By going to Central High, Melba fought for the life that she saw in Cincinnati, and that she wanted to bring to Arkansas. In 1995, she wrote a book about her experience.
Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the “Little Rock Nine”, was born on December 18, 1942. Carlotta dreamed of becoming a doctor; she wanted to attend Central High because of its strong science department, complete with advanced lab facilities. At Central High her athletic skill helped her gain the respect of her peers. After Central High closed, Carlotta received tutoring from the NAACP in order to attend college. She finished her degree at Colorado State College, and in 1977, she opened a real estate brokerage firm.
Gloria Cecilia Ray Karlmark was born on September 26, 1942 in Little Rock, and was fifteen when she entered Central High School. Gloria had a difficult time coping with the amount of hatred directed at her. One white child even threw Gloria across the floor. After high school, Gloria remained a driving force in the civil rights movement.
Thelma Jean Mothershed was born on November 29, 1940, in Bloomberg, Texas. She attended Horace Mann High School before transferring to Central High for her junior year. She was born with a heart disorder, but that did not stop her from achieving a perfect attendance record. Thelma went on to attended Southern Illinois University, which she graduated from in 1964.
Elizabeth Eckford was born on October 4, 1942. At the end of Elizabeth's sophomore year, she made the decision to transfer from Horace Mann School to Central High School for the following fall. She went because she “knew that what was available to white students was more than and better than what was available in a Negro school.” However, life was tough. Elizabeth stated, “It was hard, going back every day. It was hard, trying to stay there all day." Eckford now speaks and appears on television about her experience.
Minnijean Brown Trickery was born on September 11, 1941. She was sixteen when she became a part of the Little Rock Nine. She was expelled from Central High for dropping a tray of food on white students in reaction to verbal attacks; she was the only member of the "Little Rock Nine" who did not survive the year at Central. Now she works as a social worker, activist, and teacher, and has a "lifetime commitment to peace making." Minnijean Brown currently takes teenagers on tours of civil rights landmarks and promotes non-violence. 1