FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (Army News Service, Sept. 20, 2007) - Fifty years ago the 101st Airborne Division entered Little Rock, Ark., on orders of the president of the United States. The mission: to uphold a Supreme Court ruling to integrate public schools.
The conflict between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Arkansas' pro-segregation governor, Orval Faubus, had been simmering for weeks until President Eisenhower summoned the Screaming Eagles.
Soldiers of the 1st Airborne Battle Group, 327th Infantry Regiment, met little resistance as they escorted nine black students, a group which became known as the Little Rock Nine, to and from Central High School. The mission was dubbed "Operation Arkansas."
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Sidney Brown, a sergeant with the 327th Infantry in 1957, was part of a back-up force camped outside Little Rock at a nearby airfield, training in case they were called for duty, he said.
Although the Army finished integrating in 1954, it was decided that any black troops, including Command Sgt. Maj. Brown, who deployed to Little Rock would stay in the reserve force to abate the anger of the crowd.
They had very few racial problems within the unit, but he said many of the black 101st Abn. Div. Soldiers resented not being able to go into the school, but recalled the words of his commander, who told the back-up force that the most important thing was getting those kids to school.
"If the second force would've gone in there, we probably would have seen a lot of problems," Command Sgt. Maj. Brown said.
He remembers the Army's segregation days when African Americans had their own barbershop and a separate post-exchange store.
"The process of complete integration was going to take time, just like integration in the Army took time," he said, noting that in the past 50 years, education and opportunity have advanced for all races.
"One of the best things to learn is that you can't stop progress," he said of Operation Arkansas. "It was going to happen sooner or later anyway. It took time, and it's going to take more time before prejudice will ever be completely eliminated from the world."
Racism and prejudice still exist, because, as Command Sgt. Maj. Brown said, you can't change people's minds. He added that this is still the greatest country in the world.
Although he had a limited role in Operation Arkansas, he is still proud to have been a part of it, realizing the significance of the event and how it "kept this country moving forward," he said.
Jack Damron, who as a young lieutenant helped escort the students to and from school, also looks back on his time in Little Rock with both pride and humility.
"I can honestly say that I had the utmost respect and admiration for the students then and now. It took a lot of courage to do what they did and fortitude to endure what they had to confront in Central High School," he said. "I cannot begin to imagine what psychological and physical abuse they had to put up with, even with the troops there.
"Initially I had no idea what the impact would be of sending elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce the law of the land," he said. "After a week or so in Little Rock, I began to appreciate what this action meant and the impact on the history of our country."
For Mr. Damron, the Little Rock operation is a proud moment in the division's rich legacy and a significant moment in our country's history.
Nine Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division will deploy to Little Rock, Ark., for a 50th anniversary celebration Sept. 24 to escort the original Little Rock Nine, once again ensuring their safety.
The event is part of a dedication ceremony, which will mark the opening of the Central High School National Historic Site, a visitor's center built by the National Parks Service. For more information, visit
www.army.mil/arkansas (starting the afternoon of Sept. 20) or
(Gregory Frye writes for the Fort Campbell "Courier.")