On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a shoemaker and social activist, walked into the Press Street Depot in New Orleans, bought a first-class ticket to Covington, Louisiana, and boarded the East Louisiana Railroad’s Number 8 train–all with the full expectation of being forced off the train or arrested—or both. That’s because Plessy was a black man…and the first class car was a “white car.” Under Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890, all railroads operating in the state were required to provide “equal but separate accommodations” for white and African American passengers. It also prohibited passengers from entering accommodations other than those to which they had been assigned. Which meant that while Plessy had paid for his ticket just like every other person in the car, legally he was not allowed to be there.
As the train pulled away from the station, the conductor asked Plessy if he was a “colored” man. Although as a light-skinned Creole, Plessy could have easily passed for white, he was determined not to deny his heritage in order to gain favor. Instead, Plessy said he was, and the conductor told him to move to the appropriate car, which Plessy refused to do. The conductor stopped the train, and Detective Christopher Cain boarded the car, arrested Plessy, and forcibly dragged him off the train with the help of a few other passengers. After a night in jail, Plessy appeared before the judge where he was found guilty of violating the law.
Plessy, however, wasn’t content to let dead dogs lie. He challenged the ruling, taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. In May 1896, the case Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. Rejecting Plessy’s argument that his constitutional rights were violated, the Supreme Court ruled that a law that “implies merely a legal distinction” between white people and Black people was not unconstitutional.
And things only got worse from there.
This ruling paved the way for an explosion of Jim Crow laws across the south, constitutionally sanctioning the barring of African Americans from sharing the same buses, schools and other public facilities as whites. The notion of “separate but equal” would stand for nearly six decades…until 1951, when a man named Oliver Brown filed a suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, after his daughter, Linda, was denied entrance to one of Topeka’s all-white elementary schools. By 1952, Brown’s case–as well as four others–had been combined into a single case under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and was set to be heard before the United States Supreme Court.
This time, however, was different.
In the decision, issued on May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” As a result, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”
Segregation was to be no longer.
Or, at least, it was supposed to have been.
In many places, resistance to the ruling was so widespread that the court was forced to issue a second decision in 1955, known as Brown II, ordering school districts to integrate “with all deliberate speed.” One such place was Little Rock, Arkansas. Due to pressure from the court as well as the local chapter of the NAACP, the local school board developed a plan for the integration of its schools. High schools, they decided, would be first, among these Little Rock Central High School.
But old prejudices die hard, and opposition groups grew in number and voice across the city. Among these was Governor Orval Faubus who, on September 2, 1957, announced that he would call in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the African American students’ entry to Central High. He claimed it was for the students’ own protection. A federal judge, however, issued a ruling that desegregation would continue as planned the next day.
On September 4, 1957, a group of African-American students known as The Little Rock Nine–Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls–arrived for the first day of school at Central High. All of them arrived together, save for Elizabeth Eckford who, owing to her lack of a telephone, was unaware of the carpool plans and arrived alone.
Despite the ruling by the federal judge, Governor Faubus kept his word: as news media looked on, under his orders, the Arkansas National Guard prevented any of the Little Rock Nine from entering the doors of Central High. Hoardes of angry white students swarmed the building, screaming, shouting, and even spitting on the nine as they attempted to enter the building. It wasn’t until September 23–over two weeks later–through intervention federal judge Ronald Davies and even president Eisenhower himself that the National Guard was finally removed and, under escort by the Little Rock Police Department, the students were finally allowed to enter the school. Unfortunately, they were removed a short time later after intense rioting broke out.
The following day, President Eisenhower sent in 1,200 members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and placed them in charge of the 10,000 National Guardsmen on duty. Escorted by the troops, the Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of classes on September 25. Faubus and other groups continue to fight for re-segregation over the coming weeks and months; despite this, and the harassment and abuse they endured, the Little Rock Nine bravely remained pupils of Central High.
The fight for civil rights has been long, messy, and complicated. But the actions taken by these courageous teenagers over those few September days in 1957–and the ensuing school years–loom as example of boldness and valor in the face of horrendous social pressure. May their names and faces–rather than those who spewed hate and prejudice–be the ones we remember.