Sixty-five years ago this week, nine Black students desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students, who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, were initially blocked from entering the building by the Arkansas National Guard. In reaction, President Dwight D. Eisenhower brought the National Guard under federal control and commanded them to escort the students into the school. The students faced a screaming mob and threats. It was one of the hallmark events of the civil-rights movement, a vivid example of the massive white resistance to desegregation.
We often reference such events by noting that many of the actors of that time are still with us, veterans of the civil-rights movement and their tormentors alike. In the classroom, I tell my students stories about my own mother’s coming-of-age in Jim Crow Alabama. The point I and others often make is that these events are not as distant as we might be inclined to think. Over the years, however, I have grown to believe that this framing is missing something.