The civil rights movement drew many young people into a maelstrom of meetings, marches and imprisonment. Some were wide-eyed idealists pursuing a cause and ignoring any consequence. Others sensed they were making history, even though they didn’t know the outcome. And some were just kids, doing what kids do. All of them made history in exposing decades of institutional segregation, white supremacy, and oppression and stirring a nation into action
Little Rock Nine
The landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education set in motion the racial integration of the nation’s schools. Resistance was widespread across the country and in 1955 the Court issued a second opinion (sometimes known as “Brown II”) ordering school districts to integrate “with all deliberate speed.” In response to the Brown decisions and pressure from the NAACP, the Little Rock, Arkansas, school board adopted a plan for gradual integration, beginning with Little Rock Central High School.
In the summer of 1957, Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, recruited nine high school students who she believed possessed the strength and determination to face the resistance to integration. They were Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls. In the months prior to the start of the school year, the students participated in intensive counseling sessions on what to expect and how to respond.
Two days before school opened, on September 2, 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to bar African American students from entry to the state’s schools, stating it was “for their own protection.” The next day, federal court judge Richard Davies issued a counter-ruling that desegregation would proceed.
As the nine African American students attempted to enter the school on September 4, a crowd of angry white students and adults, and the National Guard, were there to meet them. As the students walked toward the front door, the white protesters drew closer, screaming racial epithets and spitting on them. Ultimately the Guard prevented the students from entering the school.
In the days that followed, the Little Rock school board condemned the governor’s National Guard deployment and President Dwight Eisenhower tried to persuade Governor Faubus not to defy the Court’s ruling. On September 20, Judge Davies ordered the National Guard removed from the school and the Little Rock Police Department took over to maintain order. Three days later, the police attempted to escort the students to school but were met by an angry mob of 1,000 white protesters. Little Rock mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann, asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce integration and on September 24, President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and federalized the entire 10,000 members of the Arkansas National Guard, taking authority away from Governor Faubus. The next day, the Army troops escorted the students to their first day of class.
Legal challenges and protests to integration continued and the 101st Airborne Division stayed at the school the entire year. The nine African American students faced verbal and physical abuse. Pattillo had acid thrown in her face and Ray was thrown down a flight of stairs. In May 1958, senior Green became the first African American to graduate from Central High School. The next year, Little Rock Central High School was closed after local citizens rejected by a 3-1 margin a petition to officially integrate the school. The school reopened in 1959 and the remaining Little Rock Nine students went on to graduate and have distinguished careers in government, the military, and the media. In 1999, President Bill Clinton recognized the nine for their significant role in civil rights history, awarding each the Congressional Gold Medal and in 2009, all nine were invited to President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
The Greensboro Four
Despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision, desegregation in the South came slowly and painfully and young African Americans were keenly aware of the hypocrisy. In 1960, four African American college students – Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil – were attending the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. They had become close friends, spending evenings discussing current events and their place as African Americans in a “separate but equal” society. They had been influenced by the non-violent protest techniques of India’s Mohandas Gandhi as well as the early Freedom Rides in the Deep South, organized by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). They all four had been shaken by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.
Though all four students recognized that some strides had been made in desegregating the South, integration was not universal. Most businesses were privately owned and thus not subject to federal laws that banned segregation. When one of the students had been denied service at a lunch counter, all four of them carefully devised a plan to take action and encourage change.
Wearing their best clothes, all four students walked into the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. After purchasing some merchandise, they sat at the white people-only lunch counter and requested service which they were denied. They politely requested service and again were denied, this time by the store’s manager who told them to leave. Again, they refused. By this time, the police had arrived as did the media. Unable to take any action because there was no provocation, the police could not make an arrest. Customers in the store were dumbfounded at the situation but did nothing. The four students stayed at the counter, unserved, until the store closed. They would be back.
By February 5, hundreds of students had joined the sit-in at Woolworth’s paralyzing the lunch counter business. Intense media coverage on television and newspapers showed many of the protesters stoically facing abuse and threats by white customers. The sit-ins sparked a nationwide movement on college campuses and cities bringing attention to the struggle for civil rights. By the end of 1960, many restaurants, lunch counters, and privately-owned businesses had desegregated their facilities without any court action or legislation. The sit-ins proved to be one of the most effective protests of the civil rights movement.
Ruby Bridges was born the same year as the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In New Orleans, where Bridges lived, reluctant school officials devised a test to screen out African American children from attending white schools. While in kindergarten, Bridges took and passed the test, allowing her to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, a mere five blocks from her home. She would be the only African American child there.
Fearing a possible backlash, U.S. marshals were dispatched to New Orleans to protect Bridges. On September 14, 1960, she was escorted to the Frantz School by four marshals. She spent her first day in the principal’s office as white parents took their children out of school.
After days of heated debate, a compromise was struck where the white students would return to school. Ruby would be isolated in a classroom on a floor separated from the other students. None of the teachers but one, Barbara Henry, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, agreed to teach her. For the remainder of the year, Mrs. Henry and Bridges would sit side-by-side going over lessons in the classroom. At recess, they would stay there to play games or do calisthenics. At lunch, Bridges would remain in the room to eat alone.
Life wasn’t any better outside the classroom as the protests by white parents continued. One woman threatened to poison Bridges and another put a Black baby doll in a coffin and left it outside the school. Her father lost his job and her mother was banned from shopping at the local grocery store. After the first semester, Bridges began having nightmares. She stopped eating her lunch until Mrs. Henry joined her. Dr. Robert Coles, a child psychologist, volunteered to counsel Bridges during her first year at school. Gradually, her confusion and fear were replaced with some level of normalcy. Occasionally, she was allowed to visit some of her classmates and by her second year, she was attending classes with the other students.
Ruby attended integrated schools all the way through high school and went on to business school to become a travel agent. In 1995, Dr. Coles published The Story of Ruby Bridges recounting his experience with Ruby during that first year. Eventually, Ruby was reunited with Mrs. Henry on the Oprah Winfrey Show and from there she formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation in New Orleans to promote the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences. Bridges’ experience as the first African American student to integrate the South was immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s painting “A Problem We All Live With.”
The Children’s Crusade of 1963
In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most notorious racist cities in the South, home to one of the most violent chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. Because of this, civil rights leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made Birmingham a major focus of their efforts to register African Americans to vote and desegregate public facilities. The arrest and incarceration of Martin Luther King Jr., in April, had produced “Letters from the Birmingham Jail,” but had not increased support for integration. Local citizens were too intimidated after a circuit judge had issued an injunction against public demonstration.
SCLC staff member, Reverend James Bevel proposed a radical idea of recruiting students to become involved in the protests. King was reluctant at first, fearing harm to the children, but after much discussion agreed, hoping they would inspire the consciousness of a nation. SCLC members canvassed high schools and colleges for volunteers and began training them in the tactics of non-violence resistance.
On May 2, 1963, thousands of African American students skipped school and gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for instructions. They then marched toward downtown on a mission to talk with Birmingham’s Mayor Albert Boutwell about segregation. As the children approached city hall, they were corralled by police and hundreds were escorted to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. That evening, Dr. King went to see the students at the jail with the message, “What you do this day will impact children who have not been born.”
The next day the march picked up again. This time, it was not so peaceful. Police were waiting for them with firehoses, clubs and police dogs. Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor personally ordered his men to attack. Immediately the area exploded with high-pressure water cannons and barking dogs. The children screamed as the water tore at their clothing and flesh. Some were pinned against walls, others were knocked off their feet. The dull thud of nightsticks hitting bone began as police grabbed children and hauled them off to jail. The news media was there recording the entire event.
The protests continued as news stories circulated throughout the nation splashing images of the brutality and generating an outcry of support. Birmingham businesses began to feel the pressure as the entire city was linked with the actions of the police. Finally, city officials met with civil rights leaders and worked out a plan to end the demonstrations. On May 10, city leaders agreed to desegregate business and public facilities.
The Children's Crusade marked a significant victory for civil rights in Birmingham, telling local officials they could no longer ignore the movement. Yet, the resistance to integration and equality was not over and as the year moved towards September, one of the most diabolical plots against African Americans was about to unfold.