The "Little Rock Nine" - courtesy Library of Congress

After a year of racial turmoil in Little Rock's Central High School, the Little Rock school board filed a petition to suspend desegregation in the fall of 1958. Representing the seven black students planning to return to Central High that year, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund opposed the move. Lawyers for the Little Rock school board argued the board should be permitted to delay integration until it was clear that the Supreme Court's Brown ruling applied to Arkansas schools.

Thurgood Marshall asked the U.S. Supreme Court to convene a special session to settle the question. The court agreed. On September 11, 1958, Marshall appeared before the nine Justices and his argument was recorded on tape. This is the first major argument Marshall made before the Court that is captured in sound.


Marshall: The truth of the matter is, these entire proceedings, starting with the filing of the petition of the school board way back in February, asking for time, the whole purpose of these proceedings is to get time. The objective of the proceedings is that the Little Rock schools be returned from desegregated to segregated status as of September school term.

I think we have to think about these children and their parents, these Negro children that went through this every day, and their parents that stayed at home wondering what was happening to their children, listening to the radio about the bomb threats and all of that business. I don't see how anybody under the sun could say, that after those children and those families went through that for a year to tell them: All you have done is gone. You fought for what you considered to be democracy and you lost. And you go back to the segregated school from which you came. I just don't believe it. And I don't believe you can balance those rights.

Education is not the teaching of the three R's. Education is the teaching of the overall citizenship, to learn to live together with fellow citizens, and above all to learn to obey the law.

And the damage to the education in Arkansas and in Little Rock and in Central High comes about through the order of Judge Lemley which says that not only the school board and the state can and should submit to mob violence and threats of mob violence but that the federal judiciary likewise should do so.

I don't know of any more horrible destruction of principle of citizenship than to tell young children that, those of you who withdrew, rather than to go to school with Negroes, those of you who were punished last year, the few that the school board did punish: Come back, all is forgiven, you win.

And therefore, I am not worried about the Negro children at this stage. I don't believe they're in this case as such. I worry about the white children in Little Rock who are told, as young people, that the way to get your rights is to violate the law and defy the lawful authorities. I'm worried about their future. I don't worry about those Negro kids' future. They've been struggling with democracy long enough. They know about it.

The way this case stands, there must be a definitive decision - I hate to use the two together, it's bad English but it's the best way I can do it - that there be no doubt in Arkansas that the orders of that district court down there must be respected and cannot be suspended and cannot be interfered with by the legislature or anybody else. And less than that I don't think will give these young children the protection that they need and they most certainly deserve.