» By CHRIS COPPEDGE – firstname.lastname@example.org
Clarksville’s favorite sons, the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, or “Screaming Eagles,” served an integral role in one of the most famous hard-fought victories in the Civil Rights Movement: the integration of nine black students at Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
The crisis began Sept. 4, 1957, when nine students – Carlotta Walls, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts, Minnijean Brown and Melba Pattillo – attempted to enter Little Rock Central High.
They were turned away by the Arkansas National Guard under orders from Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus.
For more than two weeks, the students, known as the “Little Rock Nine,” stayed at home and attempted to keep up with their schoolwork.
Then the federal court ordered Faubus to comply with the court order, so he removed the National Guard troops, and the Nine once again attempted to enter the school on Sept. 23, 1957.
This time, the students were met by a mob that chased and beat black reporters trying to cover the event, as well as hurling verbal abuse at the students. The Little Rock Police Department then escorted the students back to their homes later that morning, fearing they couldn’t control the mob.
President Dwight Eisenhower referred to the mob’s actions as “disgraceful,” and he assigned 1,200 members of the 101st Airborne Division to help escort the Nine to school, and assigned the Arkansas National Guard under federal orders to assist the 101st. The Nine finally entered the school for their first full day on Sept. 25, 1957.
After harassment by fellow students, guards were assigned to escort them to classes. The Nine did not have any classes together, nor were they allowed to participate in extracurricular activities. One student, Brown, was expelled for fighting back against white students, and then moved to New York.
The other eight students continued to study at the school for the remainder of the year, with Green becoming the first black graduate on May 27, 1958. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was among the attendees at his graduation ceremony.
Today, the Little Rock Nine students continue to fight for racial equality in education.
The Little Rock Nine Foundation, formed in 1999, is “dedicated to providing financial support to needy and worthy students” and “urging local and national governmental bodies to maintain high quality systems of instruction.”
“The 101st were also on call for the University of Mississippi for James Meredith when he became the first black student at Oxford,” said 101st Airborne Division Historian James Page.
Page also notes the 101st participated in training for civil disturbances regarding race in Detroit in 1967. TAS