On Tuesday, February 9, 2010, Marquette University awarded the Little Rock Nine with its highest achievement award, the Pere Marquette Discovery Award. The previous winners were Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2003), Mother Theresa (1981), Rev. Karl Rahner, S.J. (1979) and the Apollo 11 Astronauts (1969). The award honors those who accomplish an extraordinary achievement that adds to human advancement. This year's award is awarded to the brave nine high school students, who in September of 1957, challenged the segregation of public schools by enrolling in the all white Central High School, in Little Rock, AR during the Civil Rights Era. Their story is worth telling during this month as we celebrate Black History Month.
Historians contend that the Civil Rights Era of the 20th century formally started after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas (1954) declared that segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. However, wide-spread opposition from the Brown ruling began to emerge, especially in the South where the segregationists made an all out effort not to comply with the federal order to integrate the schools. They believed that segregation was a state issue and not a federal issue.
That changed when nine students from Little Rock, AR decided to challenge the status quo and tried to enroll in Central High School. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who faced a difficult re-election bid, decided to obstruct the federal order to desegregate the schools and instead called the Arkansas National Guard to block entrance of the students. "Governor Faubus has placed this school off limits to Negroes," one of the National Guardsman said to the students on September 3, 1957. (quoted from Harvard Sitkoff's The Struggle for Black Equality, 29). Also, as the Little Rock nine prepared to enter the school house building, "a milling crowd of angry whites shouted: 'Niggers. Niggers. They're coming. Here they come.'" (Ibid, 29) and now the federal government had to intervene.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who personally thought that the Brown decision was a mistake because of his belief in states' rights, at first did not want to get involve. As mounting pressure grew, Eisenhower had no choice but to end the situation in Little Rock by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and sent a thousand troops from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. Once they were there, the troops dispersed the crowd and safely escorted the students to their classes. For the next two months, the black students received federal troop protection within the school and finally, Congress enacted federal civil rights legislation for the first time since Reconstruction.
The legacy of the Little Rock Nine lives on in historic memory through the countless books about the Civil Rights Movement. Also, to learn more about this heroic story, you can visit this "virtual museum" called The Little Rock Foundation www.littlerock9.org to take a walking tour through the story and read the biographies of each student. Also, the Foundation promotes equal justice in education to all members of society no matter their gender, race, or creed. Finally, if you are really inspired by this story, you can make a tax-deductible contribution to help keep this Foundation going to make aware how equal justice under the law is one of the key elements of our nation's identity.
On behalf of the citizens of Wisconsin, we congratulate the Little Rock Nine for receiving the Pere Marquette Discovery Award for their true heroism during the tumultuous Civil Rights Era. Also, we thank Marquette University for picking another outstanding group of individuals to receive this award. May these nine students always remind us how important it is to promote equality in education and in society to help us live out the true meaning of being an American. Finally, I encourage all of you to take the time and read a historical account of the Civil Rights Movement to remind you what makes the United States unique is that everybody is created equally under the law.