Written By: Ben Cosgrove

For centuries race has been a contentious and often corrosive topic in America’s national dialogue. Nothing has illuminated America’s failings as harshly as the nation’s .handling of racial strife; nothing has more clearly shown us at our best and our bravest as the victories won by the men and women in the great struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.

For generations who have grown up in a country where blatant segregation is (technically, at least) illegal, it’s bizarre to think that well within out nation’s collective living memory African-American children once needed armed soldiers to escort them safely to school. But just six decades ago, the president of the United States was compelled to call on combat troops to ensure that nine teenagers in Little Rock, Ark., were protected from the enmity of their classmates and neighbors.

The Little Rock Nine, as the teens came to be known, were black students who sought to attend Little Rock Central High School in the fall of 1957. The Supreme Court had ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Three years later, states in the South finally began to face the reality of federally mandated integration. It was historic, and dramatic and for weeks on end, it was profoundly ugly.

Reporters and photographers from across the country traveled to Little Rock, expecting to chronicle the cultural poison unleashed in the South each time strides were made toward full desegregation. In Little Rock, on Sept. 4, 1957 on the first day of school the media recorded the scene as 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, the first of the nine to arrive, was sent off of school grounds by Arkansas National Guardsmen, their rifles raised.

Arkansas governor Orval Faubus had ordered this armed intervention by guardsmen under the pretense of preventing bloodshed—a scenario, LIFE noted at the time, that many Arkansans felt was unlikely to come to pass. Still, Faubus’s actions proved a successful, if temporary, roadblock.

A profile of Faubus published in the next week’s issue of LIFE noted that the governor spent several days holed up in his Little Rock mansion. Photographer Grey Villet and correspondent Paul Welch were with Faubus during his “self-imposed confinement,” noting in words and photos the man’s routines, which included answering letters from hundreds of segregationists sending cash and letters of support for his anti-integration resolve.

“The governor gulped tranquilizers and ate bland food to appease a troublesome stomach,” Welch wrote, noting that Faubus really seemed to believe that he was acting only with the best intentions for everyone involved in the standoff.

“A man without a great deal of courage would have taken the easy way out and said to the Negroes, ‘Go in there and get hurt,'” Faubus said. “But I’d rather take the criticism than face the prospect that I’d been negligent and caused someone’s death in this integration thing.”

The federal government, meanwhile, didn’t quite buy the governor’s justification for his actions in “this integration thing.” Interrupting his own vacation, President Dwight Eisenhower met with Faubus; shortly afterward, the Arkansas National Guard was removed from the school grounds.

On the heels of that decision came what LIFE deemed “a historic week of civil strife.”

On Sept. 23, the nine students entered Little Rock Central High School for the first time, ignoring verbal abuse and threats from the crowd outside. When the mob realized the students had successfully entered the school, violence erupted, and seven journalists were attacked including two reporting for LIFE. As the situation deteriorated, school officials, fearing for the students’ safety, dismissed the Little Rock Nine at lunchtime.

The next day, President Eisenhower ordered paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to the school, escorting students to the building and singling out troublemakers bent on disrupting the federal mandate. Over the following days, these troops and members of the Arkansas National Guard Eisenhower had federalized 10,000 guardsman, effectively taking them out from under Faubus’s control kept the situation in hand, their (armed) presence serving to pacify the more belligerent and strident elements in town.

Here, LIFE.com presents the work, much of which never ran in LIFE, of no less than six of the magazine’s photographers from Arkansas: Ed Clark, Francis Miller, Grey Villet, George Silk, Thomas McAvoy and Stan Wayman. Each brought his skills to bear on the events in Little Rock and, later, in Van Buren, Ark., in 1957 and ’58, and thus helped keep the desegregation struggle squarely in the public eye.

Although the Little Rock Nine were finally able to attend classes by late September 1957, the fight wasn’t over: throughout the rest of the school year, they faced ongoing abuse, threats, discrimination and acts of hazing from their white peers and, disgracefully, from equally vicious adults. But when spring 1958 came around, eight of the nine had successfully completed the school year. In an elemental way, they had won.

 

Vaughn Wallace is a photo editor and historian. Follow him @vaughnwallace.

Arkansas National Guardsmen prevent African American students from entering Little Rock Central High School, September 1957.

Arkansas National Guardsmen prevented African-American students from entering Little Rock Central High School, September 1957.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A convoy of Jeeps from the 101st Airborne headed to Little Rock.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Arkansas National Guard stand on duty during the integration of Little Rock Central High School, 1957.

Members of the Arkansas National Guard stood on duty during the integration of Little Rock Central High School, 1957.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Members of the Little Rock Nine arrive at school, only to be turned away by Arkansas National Guardsmen, 1957.

Members of the Little Rock Nine arrived at school, only to be turned away by Arkansas National Guardsmen, 1957.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Hazel Bryant follows and jeers at Elizabeth Eckford as she walks from Little Rock's Central High after Arkansas National Guardsmen barred Eckford from school.

Hazel Bryant followed and jeered at Elizabeth Eckford as Eckford walked from Little Rock’s Central High after Arkansas National Guardsmen barred Eckford from school.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

African American students, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

African American students, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, is waved off school grounds by Arkansas National Guardsmen, September, 1957.

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, was waved off school grounds by Arkansas National Guardsmen, September, 1957.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Elizabeth Eckford and family watch TV, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Elizabeth Eckford and family watched TV, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Little Rock Nine, 1957

Members of the Little Rock Nine during legal hearings on their attempts to enter Little Rock Central High School, September 1957.

Grey Villet/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Segregationists picket in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Segregationists picketed in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Ed Clark/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A group of jeering anti-integrationists trail two black students down a street in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

A group of jeering anti-integrationists trailed two black students down a street in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Ed Clark/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Troops race to break up a crowd protesting school integration, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Troops raced to break up a crowd protesting school integration, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Ed Clark/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Segregationists rousted from an anti-integration protest, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Segregationists rousted from an anti-integration protest, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Ed Clark/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Segregationists rousted from an anti-integration protest, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Segregationists rousted from an anti-integration protest, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Ed Clark/Life Pictures/Getty Images

African-American students arrive at Little Rock Central High under heavy guard by troops from the 101st Airborne, 1957.

African-American students arrived at Little Rock Central High under heavy guard by troops from the 101st Airborne, 1957.

Ed Clark/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Paratroopers from the 101st Airborne stand guard outside Little Rock Central High School, September 1957.

Paratroopers from the 101st Airborne stood guard outside Little Rock Central High School, September 1957.

George Silk/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scene in Little Rock, Arkansas, during anti-integration protests in September 1957.

Scene in Little Rock, Arkansas, during anti-integration protests in September 1957.

George Silk/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Troops from the 101st Airborne square off against anti-integrationists, Little Rock, Arkansas, September 1957.

Troops from the 101st Airborne squared off against anti-integrationists, Little Rock, Arkansas, September 1957.

George Silk/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scene in Little Rock, Arkansas, during anti-integration protests in September 1957.

Scene in Little Rock, Arkansas, during anti-integration protests in September 1957.

George Silk/Life Pictures/Getty Images

African-American students escorted by federal troops, Little Rock Central High School, 1957.

African-American students escorted by federal troops, Little Rock Central High School, 1957.

George Silk/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Troops from the 101st Airborne patrol the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Troops from the 101st Airborne patrolled the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

George Silk/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Civil Rights leader Daisy Bates gazes through her front window, watching the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine from her home to begin their first full day of classes at the formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Civil Rights leader Daisy Bates gazed through her front window, watching the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine from her home to begin their first full day of classes at the formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Thomas McAvoy/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mrs. Daisy Bates, NAACP leader, meets with African-American students that have been denied admittance to public schools, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Daisy Bates, an NAACP leader, met with African-American students who had been denied admittance to public schools, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Stan Wayman/Life Pictures/Getty Images

African-American students who were refused admission to their high school football game, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

African-American students were refused admission to their high school’s football game, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.

Stan Wayman/Life Pictures/Getty Images

At a school in Van Buren, Arkansas, African-American students arrive in front of a crowd of journalists and other onlookers, 1957.

At a school in Van Buren, Arkansas, African-American students arrived in front of a crowd of journalists and other onlookers, 1957.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

African-American students arrive at school in Van Buren, Arkansas, the year after the Little Rock Nine integrated Little Rock's public schools, September 1958.

African-American students arrived at school in Van Buren, Arkansas, the year after the Little Rock Nine integrated Little Rock’s public schools, September 1958.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Students enter a previously segregated school, Arkansas, 1958.

Students entered a previously segregated school, Arkansas, 1958.

Francis Miller/Life Pictures/Getty Images

More Like This

Scene during the 1960 Republican National Convention in Chicago. history

LIFE’s Best Convention Photos: The GOP

history

A Colorful, Historical Look at The Republican National Convention

history

A Colorful, Historical Look at The Democratic National Convention

history

The Road to VJ Day, 75 Years Later

history

Remembering Civil Rights Heroes John Lewis and C.T. Vivian

history

Celebrate the 1970s