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Confrontation at Central High

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In 1957, Little Rock unexpectedly became the battleground in the first major conflict between state and federal government over race relations. At the time, the city was generally viewed as progressive by Southern standards. All parks, libraries and buses were integrated, a relatively high thirty percent of blacks were on the electoral register and there were black police officers. However, when the Little Rock School Board announced its decision to phase in desegregation gradually – the Supreme Court having declared segregation of schools to be unconstitutional – James Johnson, a candidate for governor, started a campaign opposing interracial education. Johnson’s rhetoric began to win him support, and the incumbent governor, Orval Faubus, who had previously shown no interest in the issue, jumped on the bandwagon himself.

The first nine black students were due to enter Central High School that September. The day before school opened, Faubus, “in the interest of safety”, reversed his decision to let blacks enrol, only to be overruled by the federal court. He ordered state troopers to bar the black students anyway; soldiers with bayonets forced Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine, from the school entrance into a seething crowd, from which she had to jump on a bus to escape. As legal battles raged during the day, at night blacks were subject to violent attacks by white gangs. Three weeks later, President Eisenhower reluctantly brought in the 101st Airborne Division, and, amid violent demonstrations, the nine entered the school. That year, they experienced intense intimidation; when one retaliated, she was expelled. The graduation of James Green, the oldest, seemed to put an end to the affair, but Faubus, up for re-election, renewed his political posturing by closing down all Little Rock’s public schools for the 1958–59 academic year – and thereby increased his majority. Today Central High School – an enormous brown, crescent-shaped structure at 1500 S Park Ave, bearing no little resemblance to a fortress – is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated as a National Park site. Across the street, at 2125 Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive, the Central High Visitor Centre (daily 9am–4.30pm, Sun 1–4.30pm; free; w http://www.nps.gov/chsc/), on the spot from which reporters filed stories on the only public payphone in the neighbourhood, has a good exhibition about the crisis.

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