On September 25, 1957, nine African American students entered the front doors of Little Rock Central High School. They were accompanied by federal troops from the 101st Airborne Division so they would not be assaulted or otherwise prevented from entering the building. The experiences of the Little Rock Nine, as the African American students were later called, demonstrate that religion is often used to promote very different viewpoints.
In the late 1950s, the idea of integrating white schools was still new. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, said having separate schools for blacks was illegal. Both sides, the integrationists who wanted African American students to have the same access to the better funded schools that whites attended, and the segregationists who wanted to keep things the same, thought they were right. In fact, they used the same religion, Christianity, to support their causes.
Days before the paratroopers arrived, African American students tried to enter Central High, but were blocked by National Guardsmen, citizens from Little Rock, and even students. Some white students used their religion to explain their attitudes. One of these students was Hazel Bryan, a white girl who photographers captured shouting in anger behind black student Elizabeth Eckford. Hazel later said, “I was very religious at that time. I attended church every Sunday morning and night…while no one at the church said that we should protest school integration, we got the feeling that it would be a good thing to do.”
Many white ministers believed that God sanctioned segregation. Some referred to the passage from Genesis 9:20-27 that said one of Noah’s sons was dark-skinned and was cast out as proof that God did not want white and black people to be near each other.
During the 1956 Arkansas governor’s race, candidate Jim Johnson appealed to voters by saying that the South, “one of the last patriotic and Christian strongholds,” would be ruined if the schools were integrated. While Johnson didn’t win the election, he convinced Governor Orval Faubus that he could not support integration of the public schools. Faubus, who had previously taken a more moderate stance on race issues, sent the Arkansas National Guard out to block African American students from entering the high school on September 4, 1957.
In contrast, some Christians and white ministers supported integration of the state’s public schools. On September 4, 1957, three white ministers joined two black ministers and NAACP chairperson Daisy Bates to walk with the African American students on what was supposed to be their first day of school. Unfortunately, only seven of the students heard about this plan. The seven students who did were still turned away by National Guardsmen, but unlike Elizabeth Eckford, they did not have to fend for themselves.
When the Little Rock Nine finally started school, they faced ridicule and sometimes violence from white students. However, other students like Glennys Oakes were members of churches that supported integration. She said that her minister told the young people that the segregationists’ interpretation of the story of Noah’s son was ridiculous. She said, “Our whole perspective was that this [integration] was the right thing to do.” Despite harassment from segregationists, Glennys and five other white students invited black students to sit at their table during lunch.