Exclusive: Members of 'Little Rock Nine' reflect on 70 years since Brown v. Board of Education

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(LITTLE ROCK, Ark.) -- Seventy years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ended racial segregation in public schools, members of the "Little Rock Nine" -- the first group of African American students to attend Little Rock Central High School -- sat down with ABC News to discuss the challenges they faced in education then and the challenges that remain today.

Minnijean Brown, Terrence Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls LaNier, known as the Little Rock Nine, began attending Little Rock Central High School in 1957, three years after the historic decision, making them the first students to desegregate the school.

The Nine were all volunteers recruited by the NAACP, under the leadership of Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas chapter, to be part of the first official enactment of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the "separate but equal" doctrine. Their journey to the classroom was not simple.

"We are young black kids and literally having experienced legalized segregation for the better part of our lives," Roberts told ABC News, "In truth, there was always separatism but never equality. I thought this was a short window or door of opportunity opening, probably wouldn't last very long, based on my knowledge of the history of the country. So I was eager to volunteer to see what I could do to promote this whole notion of change."

On Sept. 3, 1957, the Nine were set to begin their first day at the formerly all-white high school. They arrived to find the National Guard blocking their entrance to the school on Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus' orders, despite the Supreme Court's then-recent decision that deemed segregation unconstitutional.

They returned the next day to again find the National Guard, this time joined by a mob protesting against integration.

"First day, it did not bother me. I saw the crowd. I heard the name-calling. I recognized that there would be people out there that did not want me there. That, I expected, okay ... not for it to last as long as it did," LaNier, who is the youngest of the Nine, recalled.

With testimony from the Nine, United States District Judge Ronald N. Davies ordered the removal of the National Guard on Sept. 20, 1957. Three days later, the Nine finally entered Little Rock Central High School - through a side door and escorted by Little Rock police. On their first day, the Nine were able to attend class for three hours before being sent home for their safety.

In response to the continued concerns and threats to the students' safety, then-President Dwight Eisenhower sent troops from the U.S. Army to guard and escort the Nine. On Sept. 25, 1957, the Little Rock Nine finally began regularly attending classes at Little Rock Central High School.

At Central, the Nine hoped to get access to the resources that were absent in all-Black schools. They sought the educational opportunities that the 1954 Court decision said segregation was depriving minority children of.

"But we didn't have time to think about those things because our focus was on staying alive," Roberts said. "Believe it or not, this was a life-threatening situation. People threatened to kill us every hour, every day. But in spite of that, we were willing to stay there because it was important to be there."

Derrick Johnson, the current president of the NAACP, highlighted the importance of acknowledging the hardship the Nine went through.

"What we need to do is celebrate those individuals, think about the Little Rock Nine, here are young people who was put in harm's way with trauma. Those individuals had to carry that trauma from their childhood through adulthood, we just need to say thank you. We have the Brown litigants and their families and their descendants," he said.

Johnson also pointed out that efforts to ban or censor teaching Black history in schools may exclude teaching about segregation, Brown v. Board, and the Little Rock Nine.

Friday, in honor of the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board, the NAACP and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture are honoring the Little Rock Nine. Johnson says it's important to acknowledge the Brown litigants, their families and their descendants too.

Cheryl Brown Henderson is the daughter of Oliver Brown, a main plaintiff in the case whom Brown vs. Board of Education was named after. Born, raised and buried in Topeka, Kansas, Brown partook in the lawsuit because his oldest daughter, Linda - Cheryl's sister - had to travel 24 blocks to attend the nearest African American school.

Addressing the media following a closed meeting with President Biden and other Brown-involved parties, Brown Henderson said that the fight is not over, saying that public education should be funded well and can be improved.

"Anytime we can talk about failing underfunded public schools, there is a problem. There should be no such thing. Public institutions, where most of us got our education, should be world-class, educational institutions," Brown Henderson said. "So I'm not understanding that and I want us to roll up our sleeves and get back to the hard work of educating our children."

LaNier echoed this sentiment and called upon young people to "stand up," as she and her eight classmates once did.

"I'm disappointed over these 60-plus years that all the achievements that we have made here in this country is now being taken away from us," LaNier said. "If young people don't stand up and stop some of this process and strategize as to how they're gonna go about changing these things or at least put some rush to what is being changed by others, we're in a mess the way I see it."

ABC News' Tesfaye Neguisse, Abby Cruz, Adisa Hargett-Robinson, Sabina Ghebremedhin, and Michelle Stoddart contributed to this report.

Friday, May 17, 2024 at 11:17AM by Dhanika Pineda, ABC News Permalink