The Little Rock Nine and the Integration of Central High School

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.

Soldiers from 101st Airborne escort Little Rock Nine students into Central High School

Soldiers from 101st Airborne escort Little Rock Nine students into Central High School, 1957. Source: US Army

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.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail

In April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for taking part in a civil rights protest. African-Americans in Birmingham, Alabama had few rights. They were not allowed to enter certain stores and the police would not investigate the bombings of African-Americans’ homes or churches by angry whites. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a non-violent protest in this city to draw attention to the injustices that blacks experienced.

While in jail, he wrote a letter to white Alabama pastors who thought that legalized separation of blacks and whites, known as segregation, should not be protested. They felt that the courts should decide whether the laws of segregation were just. In his letter, King explains that there are two types of laws: just (fair) laws, and unjust (unfair) laws.

He explains that a just law is one that all citizens have a vote on and must follow. An unjust law is a law that only a minority needs to follow whether they can vote on it or not.  For example, he was arrested for parading without a permit. While he sees nothing wrong with a requirement for parade permits, he points out that this law was being used to squash the right of African-Americans to protest for equal rights.

King does not, however, advocate that African-Americans break laws just for the fun of it or out of bitterness for their poor treatment. Instead, they would have to be willing to accept the consequences of their actions. He writes, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly…and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” King was accepting the penalty of an unjust law by calmly sitting in jail for his part in the protest.

History, King points out, is full of unjust laws. For example, Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews was legal for a long time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that Hitler’s laws were unjust. In the same way, segregation laws would be viewed as unjust someday. Thanks to King and other civil rights leaders, the injustice of segregation is obvious to Americans today.