The day nine young students defied racism
That astonishing act of courage took place exactly 60 years ago — yet how much has changed? For example, today in America blacks are three times as likely as whites to be killed by police.
Nine African-American teenagers arrived at Little Rock Central High School on 25 September 1957. Met by a hostile crowd, they passed into the building in single file. Protecting them were 1,200 soldiers, sent by President Eisenhower.
Despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that banned segregated education, the governor of Arkansas had blocked the students' first two attempts to enter the school. It was only the president’s intervention that allowed them to go to school safely.
But as commemorations begin for the 60th anniversary of the “Little Rock Nine”, some doubt how different 2017 looks to 1957 for African-Americans.
A report released by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year showed that in the decade to 2014 the number of disadvantaged schools with mainly black and Hispanic pupils nearly doubled. “Inequitable access to educational opportunity… has robbed our nation’s most vulnerable students of learning gains and later life success,” wrote US congressman Bobby Scott last year.
Educational equality is enshrined in American law, following the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling. More acts protecting the rights of non-white people followed, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act that abolished all segregation in schools and employment.
But injustices and violence still remain. “The Counted”, a special project by the Guardian last year, found evidence that black males aged 15–34 were nine times more likely to be killed by police officers than other Americans.
In the news this week, President Trump, responding to the NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in protest against racial violence, callied for them to be fired or suspended. In contrast, Barack Obama acknowledged Colin Kaepernick’s demonstration last year by saying: “There are gonna be a lot of folks who do stuff we don’t agree with… but as long as they’re doing it within the law, then we can voice our opinion objecting to it, – but it’s also their right.”
How much has really changed for black Americans?
“Life is much better now than it was,” argue some. The integration of black and white lives has been set down in law, and people’s attitudes have changed to reflect this. Just think of Obama: the most powerful man in the world for eight years was black. We are lucky to live in an era of equality.
“How can you not see what is in front of you?” respond others. Black people are dying in their thousands at the hands of racist, violent, white Americans. Laws are all very well, but they will not protect innocent people when they are staring down the barrel of a gun. Things are no better now than they were in the 1950s.
- Are black people’s lives better now than they were in 1957?
- Should the USA alter the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”?
- American society was segregated in the 1950s. Imagine that you are a black person in 1957. How might your life be affected by this policy? For example, black and white people were not allowed to swim in the same pool in some areas. Note down your ideas, then compare with those of a partner.
- Research the important turning points in the struggle for civil rights in the USA. An example is the 1954 Supreme Court ruling. Choose the one you regard as the most important and write a persuasive speech, explaining why you think it was so significant. Defend your view to the class.
Some People Say...
“Every civil rights bill in this country was passed for white people, not for black people.”Stokely Carmichael, a prominent figure in the civil rights movement.
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The Little Rock Nine remained lifelong friends after their experience. All of them went on to successful careers, ranging from working as an aerospace technician to serving in Jimmy Carter’s presidential administration. They are all still alive, except for Jefferson Thomas, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2010.
- What do we not know?
- It is hard to tell what direction civil rights movements will take in the future. President Obama was sympathetic to the cause, while Trump has shown that his priorities lie elsewhere. However, Black Lives Matter leaders have stated that the hostility of the Trump administration has prompted the organisation to expand its mission.
- School segregation, where black and white students were separated, began towards the end of the 19th century with the so-called Jim Crow laws.
- Little Rock Nine
- The nine students were selected by the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) on the basis of their academic excellence.
- The Counted
- This report followed a wave of police killings of black people and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013.
- Members of several NFL teams have been kneeling instead of standing during the singing of the national anthem. These teams include the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose owner Shahid Khan gave $1m to Trump for his inauguration. Khan linked arms with his players in solidarity.
- Colin Kaepernick
- Kaepernick used to play quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He knelt last year during the singing of the national anthem, saying that he would not stand for the flag of a country that “oppresses black people and people of colour”.