WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 20, 2007) - Paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division landed in Little Rock, Ark., Sept. 24, 1957, to help end America's racial divide.
Sent by Dwight D. Eisenhower to enforce the 1954 Supreme Court ruling ending school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education, the Soldiers arrived to end a three-week standoff and ensure nine black students were able to attend the all-white Central High School.
The Fort Campbell, Ky.-based 101st Abn. Div. was chosen for Operation Arkansas because of its ability to deploy quickly and on short notice, according to Capt. James Page, unit historian.
Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus activated the state's National Guard in early September to keep the black students, who became known as the "Little Rock Nine," from entering the school as mobs of angry whites shouted racial slurs and threats.
The nine students had volunteered to attend Central to improve their education and were not expecting the anger and hate that confronted them, especially since other Little Rock institutions had already desegregated, according to Ernest Green, one of the students.
"I was shocked," recalled Elizabeth Eckford of the day school opened. "I had thought the National Guard would protect all students, but when I approached the corner, they either closed ranks or crossed rifles to bar me. They turned me away, into the path of those angry people. I headed toward the bus stop and the people followed me. It was very, very frightening because of the things that they were saying."
When they tried attending the school again two weeks later, police officers in plain clothes had to whisk them out to save their lives. Riots broke out and three black journalists were attacked in front of the school.
The next day President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Abn. Div. to end mob rule and enforce federal laws, a decision the nine students greeted with relief.
"I felt safe with the paratroopers," said Mr. Green. "This was, in my memory, the first time I'd seen the United States federal government supporting the rights of minorities. If the president of the United States thought what we were doing was worth supporting, I felt like I had clearly made the right decision."
On Sept. 25, the students were escorted to the school in a military van flanked by gun-mounted jeeps. Not allowed to protect the students during class or at their lockers, the Soldiers set up perimeter around the school. Inside, the students faced constant insults and threats; their lockers were vandalized; their homework destroyed.
When the then-federalized Arkansas National Guard replaced the 101st Abn. Div. in late October, the attacks escalated. Both Soldiers and students seemed at war, said Mrs. Eckford and Mr. Green.
Mrs. Eckford recalled the moment a Soldier saved one girl from an acid attack by pushing her face into a water fountain. "The 101st made it possible for us to go to school," she said.
The citizens of Little Rock deeply resented the Soldiers' presence, said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Sidney Brown, who was then part of the 101st Abn. Div. African-American himself, he had joined the Army in 1948 because he didn't want to shine shoes in Birmingham, Ala., for the rest of his life. Instead, his high-school diploma helped him reach the rank of sergeant in only six months in the Army.
With the city's mood so violent, leaders decided to keep the unit's black Soldiers - and many whites - on reserve at a nearby National Guard airfield.
"I was proud of the fact that I was part of Little Rock, even though I didn't get a chance to go into the school. I understood the reasons why we were in the rear," he said. "That doesn't mean we wouldn't have gone in if they had needed us, because we would have. It was to keep things from getting more enflamed and that was probably the right decision at the time."
The Army had already achieved integration by 1954. In fact, according to Command Sgt. Maj. Brown, the Army's first unit to integrate in 1947 was also an airborne unit: the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
World War II and the Korean War, he said, were major factors in the Army's integration.
"If you'd been shot at, and the guy to the left or right was a black guy and he saved your life, if he pulled you back out of harm's way, your whole attitude changed. I'm talking about mind changes: 'This guy's not so bad after all. He's got two legs and arms, he can fight, too. He can jump out of an airplane, too,'" he said.
Although the Little Rock School Board and Governor Farbus closed all three of the city's high schools the following year to avoid further integration, Mrs. Eckford and Mr. Green both credit the 101st Abn. Div. with moving the desegregation of the South forward.
"There are debts that can never, never be repaid, but they must be acknowledged. Desegregation could have been delayed for many years as it had been in other places where attempts were turned around," said Mrs. Eckford, who was forced to finish her final year of high school via correspondence courses. She joined the Army herself a decade later.
This Sept. 25th, nine 101st Abn. Div. Soldiers will once again escort the Little Rock Nine into Central High School as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration. Visit
www.army.mil/arkansas (starting the afternoon of Sept. 20) for more information on Operation Arkansas and the Army's participation in the commemoration.