In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional. In 1955, the Court reaffirmed the ruling, saying that schools must be integrated "with all deliberate speed." But by 1957, many southern schools remained segregated, and most black schools received less funding and had fewer resources than white schools.
Little Rock, Arkansas seemed moderate compared to other southern cities. Its white school board was the first in the South to comply with the Court's mandate to integrate schools in 1955. The school board, worried about the impact of sudden change, made plans to desegregate its schools gradually over six years. In September 1957, 9 of the 75 black students who signed up were chosen to attend Central High School. The students, aged 14 to 16, were Minnie Jean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls.
But as the desegregation plan unfolded, white resistance mounted in Little Rock, and the night before school started, Governor Orval Faubus announced on statewide television that "Blood will run in the streets if Negro pupils should attempt to enter Central High School." On the first day of school, Faubus ordered 250 Arkansas National Guardsmen to maintain order and allow only white students to enter the school. The governor's actions shocked the people of Little Rock. Faubus was considered a civil rights moderate, but later admitted that he was worried about the segregationist vote in the upcoming election.
The tension in Little Rock drew national attention. President Dwight Eisenhower was reluctant to get involved. When he tried to convince Faubus to comply with the Court's ruling, Faubus responded by removing the Arkansas National Guard, leaving the nine students vulnerable to a violent mob. When Faubus refused to guarantee the students' safety, the president ordered 350 federal troops to restore order and escort the "Little Rock Nine" into school.
Pattillo remembered: "You'd be walking out to the volleyball court and someone would break a bottle and trip you on the bottle. I have scars on my right knee from that." Ernest Green recalled similar incidents: "For a couple of weeks there had been a number of white kids following us, continuously calling us niggers. 'Nigger, nigger, nigger,' one right after the other." For Green, however, it was worth it: "Walking up the steps [of Central High School] that day was probably one of the biggest feelings I've ever had. I figure I had finally cracked it."
The following year, Faubus retaliated by closing the Little Rock public schools. He was re-elected to his third term as governor by an overwhelming majority.