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Askwith Essentials: The Little Rock Nine and Social Justice in American Education

At the Askwith Forums on February 8, a panel will discuss the need for social justice efforts in American education in order to create a more equitable environment for students.

The documentary Teach Us All, a historical account of the Little Rock Nine, will be screened, followed by a discussion with the film’s director, Sonia Lowman; two members of the Little Rock Nine, Minnijean Brown Trickey and Terrence Roberts; Jonathan Crossley, principal of Baseline Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas; and Treopia G. Washington, director of special initiatives for the College of Education at Bowie State University.

The panel discussion will be live-streamed beginning at 6 p.m. (Note: The film screening will not be streamed. Please visit http://www.teachusallfilm.org/ for advance screening information.)

Who are the Little Rock Nine?

After the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, called for the desegregation of schools in the United States, districts worked to begin integration, but many areas, like Little Rock, Arkansas, remained resistant. In 1957, nine African American students in Little Rock — Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls — were selected by the NAACP because of their strength and resilience to become the first to attend all-white Central High School. This group of students became known as the Little Rock Nine.

When the Little Rock Nine tried to attend class on the first day of school on September 4, they were met by an angry mob of segregationists and the Arkansas National Guard, who had been ordered by Arkansas governor Orval Faubus to prevent the students from entering. Several attempts to attend school were thwarted by the persistence of the National Guard and protesters, requiring the intervention of federal judge Richard Davies, who ordered the removal of the guard from the school, and President Dwight Eisenhower, who sent troops from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to manage the scene. The Little Rock Nine finally attended their first day of school at Central High on September 25, 1957, making history.

It was a difficult year for the nine, however, as they were subject to daily harassment from their peers. Of the nine, one – Ernest Green, the only senior – received his diploma from Central High that year, becoming the first African American to do so. At the end of the academic year, Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s schools in an attempt to prevent further integration. Once Central reopened a year later, two of the nine — Carlotta Walls and Jefferson Thomas — returned to campus.

The Little Rock Nine have received various awards and recognition for their courage including the Congressional Gold Medal from President Clinton in 1999, and were invited to President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

For more on the Little Rock Nine:

Two of the Little Rock Nine will be present at the event on February 7:

  • Minnijean Brown Trickey became an activist, teacher, and social worker. In 2015, she donated several personal items to the National Museum of American History for an exhibit on the Little Rock Nine. “At a certain point, I didn’t know if I would be alive to graduate from high school, or be stark raving insane, or deeply wounded,” she told Smithsonian Magazine at the time. After retaliating against some white students who had been harassing her, Brown was expelled from Central High in February 1958. She went on to finish high school in New York City and attend Southern Illinois University.
  • Terrence Roberts is a clinical psychologist and consultant, who has held faculty and administrative positions at several colleges and universities. He wrote a memoir, Lessons from Little Rock, in 2009. In 2017, he spoke to WFPL–Louisville Public Radio, about his experiences. “The question was put to me once, ‘Did I ever think of quitting?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, every second of every day.’ Because it was difficult. And you’re right, the first day was startling and shocking and elicited quite a bit of fear, but the second day was worse because I knew going in what I would face,” he shared. Roberts finished high school in Los Angeles and went on to get his bachelor’s degree from California State University, Los Angeles, his master’s from the UCLA School of Social Welfare, and his Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

About Teach Us All

Released to coincide with the recent 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine entering Little Rock Central High School against tremendous opposition, Teach Us All examines the current state of education in America and asks, How far have we really come? The film looks at case studies in present day Little Rock, New York, and Los Angeles through a critical, historical lens, applying lessons learned during the period of desegregation after Brown v. Board and the experiences of the Little Rock Nine to the current state of education.

A social justice campaign — also called Teach Us All — encourages dialogue around inequity in education and promotes students and teachers as key figures in creating change.

Event Details:

Thursday, February 8. 4:30 p.m. (Film screening, 4:30-5:50 p.m.; panel discussion, 6 p.m.)
Askwith Hall, Longfellow Hall
13 Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138