1957: The Nine

Calle Turk, guest writer

1957: The Nine

September 3

Everything seemed in order. The dishes were washed and put away, the table was cleared, and the boys’ bags were ready—school bags for Dennis and Daniel and an army-reserve issued bag for James. I was ready to unwind with Vance Packard’s newly released book: The Hidden Persuaders, and a cup of tea, but I needed to check on the children first.

In the semi-darkness of Daniel’s room, I could see the figure of my husband and my youngest son having their nightly prayers. With a slight smile, I continued down the hallway.

Quite opposite of the previous room, Dennis’ was fully lighted. He was pacing back and forth; a worried look on his face.

“Dennis, what’s wrong?”

“Oh—nothing. Just first day jitters.Really, Mom, I’m fine,” his expression told me otherwise.

“I know you’re lying to me.”

“Mom, please. I’m probably just overreacting. Don’t worry about it.”

“Is it something to do with Bill or Danny?” I asked, referring to his two best friends with whom he had spent the day—their last day before school started.

“Well, not really… It—“

“Just tell me, Dennis”

“It’s not something they said, it’s what some other boys said. We were just playing a game of baseball, having a great time talking about the Dodgers and the Giants moving out of New York and stuff; and then, some of the hip boys from school joined us and started  talking abouttomorrow and—and, Mom, they said some horrible things about the new students.” Almost with tears in his eyes, he sat on his bed with the burden of centuries of social conflict on his shoulders. Of course, the new students—the 9 African-American students were registered to attend Little Rock Central High School—everyone was talking about them.

“What did they say, Honey?”

“Awful things, Mom. They talked about whipping the boys, raping the girls, and lynching all of them when they were done and then Danny even ‘said he would like to get hold of one of Negroes to use [a tire tool] on him’,” tears spilled from the creases of his eyes and he buried his face in my shoulder (Henningfeld, 150). “Mom, how could they say something like that? I know it’s just words, but—”

“Dennis, it isn’t their fault—it’s the way they were raised. They don’t know any better. I taught you a truth that I found at a very young age. I taught you the truth that the color of our skin does not make us any better that anyone else, that’s why you know it’s wrong. They were never taught that truth—they only know what their parents taught them,” this didn’t seem to console him. His seventeen-year-old body shook more violently than before, “Nevertheless—truth or not—what they said is not okay. I’m glad that you know that. The only thing you can do now istake every opportunity you’re given to help them.”

“You don’t understand! It’s not just going to be those boys though; it’ll be the entire school. The whole community—”

“Yes, everyone is against them—they know that—and yet, they’re still coming; if they have the courage to keep going, can’t we have the courage to help?” He nodded his head but I could sensethe tension in his body, “Please try and get some sleep, Dennis, you’ll need it for tomorrow.”I hugged him and kissed his forehead before I got up to leave.My first tear fell as the door closed behind me.


September 4

The morning hadn’t gone well. Dennis had been silent, reclusive, and short-tempered. Daniel burned his hand on the stove and would only stop crying after I turned on his favorite radio station so he could listen to Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock. James would barely speak to me before leaving for work at the National Guard Station.

I first dropped Daniel off at the elementary school. Without a care in the world, he joyfully jogged up to the front door clutching his brand new Frisbee. I longed to have his joy for the coming day at the high school.

As the front office secretary for Little Rock Central High School, I had to be at the school early; so, usually, Dennis and I arrived before anyone else was there. This morning, however, even though I was only a few minutes late, the lawn and streets surrounding the school were packed with people. I knew that something was wrong. I used my key to let Dennis and myself into the school from a side door, circumventing the growing crowd outside.

“Dennis, you go put your things in your locker and wait there until class starts. I don’t want you to argue with me, just do it.” reluctantly, he did as he was told.

I headed for the front office.I knew that this year was going to be tumultuousbut the crowd outside was more than I had ever imagined. I now wished that I had tried to listen in on some of the meetings between the governor and my boss,the superintendent; at least then I would have some idea of what was waiting at the front door for the 9 students.

Upon reaching the front office, I dropped my things on my desk, and went out the front doors see the magnitude of the upheaval outside. It was worse than I had ever imagined. Citizens of all ages—students, retired folk, stay-at-home parents, even working parents, and young children—all united in one accord of racism and white-supremacy packed the yard in front of the school. I looked to my left and right and was mortified to seeuniformed men lining the front of the school—a uniform I knew all too well. One man in uniform, in particular, stood out to me and, meeting his gaze, I made my way towards him.

“James, why is the National Guard here?”

“Dot, I’m sorry.If it hadn’t been a direct order, I would never have come in the first place.”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses, not now, just tell me what on Earth is going on.”

“The governor thought there needed to be some extra reinforcements to keep the—um—new students out; so he deployed us. Dot, I thought you knew. I promisenothing drastic is going to happen.”

“This is drastic, James. They’ve done nothing wrong; they just want to go to schoolbut not only do they have to fight their white neighbors to do so, they also have to fight against American soldiers! James—”

I was cut off by the roar of the mob—their victims had arrived.

September 22

“Wow, what a movie, right, Dot?”

“Yeah, it was good. I think it might be my new favorite.”

“Then why aren’t you smiling?” James looked at me concernedly. I chose not to answer his question. I hadn’t been lying; I really had enjoyed the movie. Audrey Hepburn was my favorite actress, and her new film Funny Face was her best one yet; but I hadn’t been able to enjoyit like I wanted to.

Pulling away from the drive-in, James attempted to make conversation,

“So have you heard any news on the Russians? One of my servicemen was telling me some rumors that they’re close to launching a satellite into orbit. Can you believe that? It’s probably nothing more than a rumor, but it’s a scary thought, ain’t it? Sometimes I wonder if there’s something that those Commies got that we don’t; they just always seem to be one step ahead of us. I guess I just better be glad that ol’Joseph McCarthy died, or else I’d have to worry about being suspected of bein’ one of  ‘em—,” He paused, “Dot, what’s wrong?”

“The same as it always is: I can’t stop thinking about those nine students. I just know that I have to do something to help them.”

“Dot, you’re doing plenty; maybe I’m wrong, but I think writing letters to President Eisenhower counts for a lot.”

“But I haven’t received a single response, and what difference are some letters written by a high school secretary going to make to the President of the United States,” tears were welling up in my eyes. “I just feel helpless—there’s nothing I can do, no matter how much I want to.” Tears now freely fell from my eyes and we remained silent the rest of the way home.

September 23

I had arrived at the school earlier than I ever had before—a full 2 hours early—and was rewarded by not having to fight through the now diurnalcrowd in order to get into the building. I had used my extra time at the school to write yet another letter to the presidentbegging him forhelp. I was just putting the stamp on the envelope, when jeering, louder than I had ever heard, reached my ears from outside.

Upon opening the door it didn’t take long to realize why the mob was excited. One of the Negro students, I recognized her as Elizabeth Eckford, had unsuccessfully attempted to enter the school and was now tryingto leave, but the crowd was closing in,blocking her escape.

Something inside me said that I had to act. She was not going to make it on her own, and I was probably the only one who would help her. I ran into the crowd, pushing through young and old alike, to reach the teenager at the epicenter. I was surrounded by people shouting, “Lynch her! Lynch her!” and, “Drag her over to [the] tree! Let’s take care of the n—–” (Henningfeld 158, 159).

When I finally reached her, I put my arm around her, and pulled her close. Initially she tried to pull away, but after giving her a soft smile, she realized that I was trying to help and together we pushed through the crowd. Shortly thereafter, we reached the bench at the bus stop across the street. I prayed earnestly that a bus would come soon.

A few minutes later I could see a big, green public transit bus coming down the road. I helped Elizabeth to her feet and onto the bus. I paid our fares and as we pulled away from the curb, I caught the glance of the superintendentin the crowd. Hismalevolent glare told that when I returned, I would no longer be employed by Little Rock Central, but I didn’t care. I knew my truth and I was sticking to it.

September 25

“Mom! Mom! They made it!” Dennis ran into the kitchen, excitedly yelling and jumping, “They made it!”

“What? Who made it?”

“The Nine, Mom. They made it into the school today! There were troops to escort them into the school. President Eisenhower sent them! Mom, they did it!” Stunned, I dropped the bowl of pie filling I had been mixing,


“Mom, they actually did it!” He wrapped me in a big hug repeating over and over, “They did it! They did it!” I was in disbelief, tears streaming down my face. It had all been worth it—the drama, the worry, losing my job, losing sleep, sticking to my truth—it was all worth it, because they did it. Nine African-American student were attending Little Rock Central, and changed the world.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Dennis ran back out to the car, and came back with his backpack and an envelope, “One of the men with the soldiers gave me this. It’s for you.”

He handed me the envelope. My shaking hands nearly prevented me from opening it, but through my tears I managed to read the last sentence and the signature:

“. . . Thank you for doing what no one else was willing to do; I wish more citizens were like you.


President Dwight D. Eisenhower”

Works Cited

Henningfeld, Diane A., editor. Perspectives on Modern World History: The Little Rock Nine.        Greenhaven Press, 2014.



African American Civil Rights Movement.World Book, 2011.

Bates, Daisy. “Excerpt from The Long Shadow of Little Rock.” The African-American      Experience, Primary Source Media, 1999.

History.com Staff. Integration of Central High School.History.com, A+E Networks,             www.history.com/topics/black-history/central-high-school-integration. April 2, 2017.

Young, William, and Nancy Young.The 1950s.Greenwood Press, 2004.