50 Years After Little Rock
Fifty years ago this September, the school year in Little Rock, Ark., began with violent protests over a federal court order to integrate its all-white Central High School. The crisis lasted nearly two years and became a symbol of racial strife in America and the tense efforts to end segregation in schools.
To commemorate the anniversary of these historic events, the Newseum and the National Archives presented a program, "50 Years After Little Rock: The Media and the Movement," on Aug. 23 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which provided insights into this pivotal era.
The first month was a particularly volatile mix of protesters, National Guardsmen, state and local police, students, and news reporters. After nine black students entered the high school, a three-week standoff ensued: Gov. Orville Faubus would not withdraw the Arkansas National Guard troops he sent to Little Rock to prevent integration; the federal court order to enroll black students stood; white protesters filled the lawn each morning at Central High; and President Dwight D. Eisenhower took no overt action.
Between 40 and 100 reporters at times covered the tense situation, keeping alive the images and story of young black students being jeered by angry white mobs.
Many journalists on the scene, especially the many reporters from black newspapers, became targets of the violence on the fateful opening day of school.
L. Alex Wilson, 49, editor of the Tri-State Defender in Memphis, was kicked repeatedly and choked from behind by white men. The assault was documented by Arkansas Democrat photographer Will Counts.
Earl Davy, working for the Arkansas State Press, was slugged and kicked, his Graflex camera smashed into a sidewalk. Moses J. Newson, a photographer on his first assignment for the Baltimore Afro-American, and James L. Hicks, editor of the New York Amsterdam News, were kicked and hit.
Associated Press reporter Pat Morin filed stories from a phone booth outside Central High School until protesters attacked the booth. Life magazine’s Grey Villet, Francis Miller and Paul Welch were punched, shoved and struck.
In their book “The Race Beat,” authors Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff recollect that “As crowds gathered outside Central High every morning, reporters routinely came under harassment, finding themselves elbowed, jostled, stepped on, heckled, and especially in the case of Negro reporters, escorted from the scene by National Guardsmen.”
On Sept. 24, President Eisenhower put the Arkansas National Guard troops under federal control and sent U.S. Army Airborne troops to Little Rock to enforce integration as ordered by a Supreme Court decision three years earlier. The Arkansas troops stayed at the high school for the entire school year. Gov. Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s high schools for the 1958–1959 school year.
The key role journalists played in illuminating the Little Rock crisis and the struggle for civil rights is shown in exhibits and films within the Newseum, including the News History gallery and the Internet, TV and Radio gallery.