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60 years later: Airmen honor MLK, Little Rock Nine

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Harry Brexel
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

U.S. Airmen from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., honored one of the greatest civil rights activists, Jan. 13, 2017. Airmen walked alongside local community leaders for a commemorative march honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., and the historic Little Rock Nine.

Segregation: End of an Era

Despite the fact that the United States of America has been racially segregated for most of its history, African-Americans have volunteered to serve as U.S. service members since colonial times. The U.S. Air Force was the first branch of the DOD to integrate and has made integration a priority since its inception in 1948.

Though around a decade later, discriminatory laws and attitudes dominated the country and especially in the South.

One of the most influential events of the anti-segregation movement in the history of the U.S. occurred in Little Rock, Ark.  

Nine African-Americans arrived for the first day of school at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Sept. 4, 1957. They were the first to do so, in the school’s 30 year history.  

Three years prior, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. The students, known as the Little Rock Nine, were recruited by Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

On the students’ first day of school at Central High, a white mob gathered and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the black students from entering, in spite of President Dwight D. Eisenhower request to remove the Arkansas National Guard Soldiers and let the Little Rock Nine enter the school.

One of the most enduring images from that day is a photograph of one of the African-American students, Elizabeth Eckford, holding a notebook and stoically attempting to enter the school as a crowd of hostile, screaming white students and adults surround her. The photograph was printed and widely distributed, bringing the Little Rock controversy to national and international attention.

On Sept. 9, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to Eisenhower urging him to “take a strong forthright stand in the Little Rock situation.” King went on to say that if the federal government did not take a stand against the injustice it would set the progress of integration back 50 years.

“This is a great opportunity for you and the federal government to back up the longings and aspirations of millions of peoples of good will and make law and order a reality,” King said.

In response to Faubus’ brazen actions, NAACP lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, won a federal district court injunction to prevent the governor from blocking the students’ entry.

On Sept. 20, 1957, the Little Rock Police Department took over to maintain order. The Little Rock Nine finally entered the school through a side entrance three days later, escorted by police. However, the group was rushed home soon afterward due to possible mob violence from 1,000 white protesters.

Then, approximately twenty days after the students’ initial attempt to attend school, 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 activated Arkansas National Guardsmen. Escorted by the Soldiers, the Little Rock Nine attended their first full day of classes on Sept. 25, 1957, and were shielded by the 101st Airborne Division and the Arkansas National Guard for the remainder of their school year.

King praised the president’s actions after the students were finally able to attend classes.

“I wish to express my sincere support for the stand you have taken to restore law and order in Little Rock, Arkansas,” King said. “You should know that the overwhelming majority of southerners, Negro and white, stand firmly behind your resolute action.”

In May 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Central High School to see the only senior among the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green, graduate and receive his diploma. Green went on to serve as assistant secretary of the Federal Department of Labor under President Jimmy Carter.

King was influential in the achievements of the Little Rock Nine and successfully assisted obtaining military assistance in a pivotal moment in the history of Arkansas and the United States.

Coming Full Circle

On Jan. 13, 2017, Little Rock Air Force Base honored King prior to Martin Luther King Day. The Little Rock Central High School marching band marched with U.S. Air Force Airmen to remember King’s major feats.

(Ret.) U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William J. Johnson, the first African-American general in the history of the Arkansas National Guard, spoke to inspire a new generation and reminded them of the major accomplishments made in the country and how great leaders helped usher change.

“Great leaders, by definition, are rare,” Johnson said. “Dr. Martin Luther King risked everything to help others. That is what we should do to honor him on this holiday.”

Now, approximately 50 years following his death, Little Rock Air Force Base honors King and his efforts to integrate. A team of Airmen plan to pay tribute by volunteering at Little Rock Central High School on MLK Day to honor the courage of the Little Rock Nine, King and the ripple effects that spurred civil rights into action.