Previous recipients of the coveted Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award include civil-rights activists Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates, former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Here are seven things to know about the Little Rock Nine:
The Little Rock Nine. (Photo: Library of Congress)
Who was part of the Little Rock Nine?
The nine brave black students were Melba Pattillo Beals, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts and Jefferson Thomas.
What did the Little Rock Nine signify?
By the time the Little Rock Nine became icons on that September Wednesday in 1957, it had been three years since the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” in America’s public schools unconstitutional.
According to History.com, the event showed the South's opposing public sentiment toward the new law.
Wednesday, Sept. 25, wasn’t the first day the Little Rock Nine tried to attend classes at the high school.
Classes at Little Rock Central High School had already been in session for at least three weeks prior to that Wednesday.
In fact, Sept. 4, was actually the first day of school at Little Rock Central High.
But on that day, as the Little Rock Nine arrived at the campus led by Daisy Bates (president of the Arkansas NAACP), the Arksansas National Guard stopped them from entering the facility, a call made by Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus.
Faubus claimed it was for the students' own protection, accoriding to History.com.
One of the more iconic photos of the Little Rock Nine features Elizabeth Eckford that day, clutching her notebook as angry white students and adults screamed at her.
After a couple more failed attempts in September, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school for their first full day of classes on Sept. 25.
The troops were also sent to federalize the Arkansas state National Guard, which under the command of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had barred the nine from entering in the first place.
Ernest Green became the first black graduate of Central High.
Green was the only senior high schooler among the Little Rock Nine. On May 25, 1958, he earned a diploma and became the school’s first black graduate.
Martin Luther King, Jr. even attended his graduation ceremony.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Green recalls his time at Little Rock Central High was “like going to war every day.”
The next year, all of Little Rock’s high schools were closed.
Citizens of Little Rock, Arkansas, voted 19,470 to 7,571 against integration, prompting Gov. Faubus to close the city’s high schools for the entire year.
During that year, the students either went to nearby schools or found other alternatives.
Only eight of the Little Rock Nine are still alive.
Before he died at age 67, Little Rock Nine’s Jefferson Thomas was a federal employee with the Department of Defense for 27 years.
The eight other surviving members continue to create their own personal achievements after integrating Little Rock Central High.
How did the Little Rock Nine influence the Civil Rights Movement?
The event tested the South’s resistance to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
As photos and accounts of the Little Rock Nine hit the nation’s newspapers, the message of unity spread with fervor.
"The imagery of these perfectly dressed, lovely, serious young people seeking to enter a high school ... to see them met with ugliness and rage and hate and violence was incredibly powerful," Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told the Associated Press.
What is Arkansas’ Little Rock School District like today?
Segregation may be over, but not many minority students and white students share classrooms today, even in Little Rock, Arkansas.
According to the AP, the Little Rock School District today is about two-thirds black and has been under state control since 2015 due to low academic performance.
And the increase in number of charter schools is only contributing to self-segregation.
From the AP:
During the 2015-2016 school year, the average black student in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended a school of approximately 14 percent white students, 14 percent Hispanic students and 68 percent black students, according to Arkansas Department of Education data.
Twenty years ago, a black student in Little Rock Arksans, would have attended a school of approximately 27 percent white students, 1.7 percent Hispanic students and 70 percent black students.
Nationally, the average black student in 1980 attended a school that was 36 percent white. And during the 2014-2015 school year, the average black student have attended a school that was only 27 percent white.
Now, the Little Rock Nine are commemorating the 60th anniversary of Central High’s desegregation by bringing light to the continuing problem of segregation in the nation’s public schools.