Corydon man had hand in desegregating Arkansas schools
Community Unity is hosting a program tomorrow evening (Thursday) at 7 that will look at Amelia Boynton Robinson, known as one of the ‘Mothers of the Civil Rights Movement.’ Robinson helped inspire the March 7, 1965, Selma-Montgomery
‘Bloody Sunday’ march that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Harold Bussabarger of Corydon knows how historical events like this one helped shape history. But there is an earlier event that he is more familiar with that led to desegregation.
It was 1957, three years after the U.S. Supreme Court had decreed an end to segregated schools. But in many areas of Arkansas, white and black students were still kept in their separate schools. To speed things along, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People selected nine students to integrate an all-white school in Little Rock. Those students ‘ Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls ‘ became known as the Little Rock Nine. They were to leave their old schools and begin attending Central High School, a prestige facility that was built in 1927. The four-story, 600,000-square-foot school had a $1.5 million price tag.
However, Orval Faubus, who was governor of Arkansas at the time, and segregationists were defying the Supreme Court ruling. And when the nine students attempted to begin the new school year at Central, members of the Arkansas National Guard, acting on the governor’s orders, denied them access. Angry crowds of adults and students shouted obscenities ‘ and worse ‘ at the terrified outsiders.
It wasn’t until then-President Dwight Eisenhower sent in his own troops, the Army’s 101st Airborne division.
Bussabarger was a member of the 327th unit of the 101st, known as the Screaming Eagles, based in Fort Campbell, Ky. He recalled that assignment in September 1957 that took him and his unit to Little Rock.
‘We did the right thing,’ said Bussabarger, 71. ‘If we hadn’t, it would’ve been a mess.’
Bussabarger, who was born in White Cloud, just west of Corydon, had been in the Army 15 months before he and about 900 other soldiers were loaded into C-123s and C-130s, along with equipment, tents and jeeps, on Sept. 24, 1957.
In a letter back home to his wife, Margie Ann, Bussabarger wrote, ‘We are landing in Little Rock. They are having trouble putting black students in the all-white school …
‘It was almost dark when we headed out’ after arriving in Arkansas,’ he wrote. ‘By the time we got downtown, it was dark. People were yelling and screaming. It was scary. I grabbed my gear from the back of the truck with the rest of the boys and headed for inside of the school.’
The soldiers ‘ except for the black members of the unit, who remained at the nearby military base for their safety and in hopes of not inciting the already unruly crowd ‘ were assigned to 4-foot-by-8-foot areas in the school gym, where they would sleep later that night, before they were given a tour of the school and its grounds.
‘The school perimeter was huge,’ Bussabarger wrote to his wife.
The following day, Sept. 25, the nine black students were told to go to school, that this time they should be able to gain admittance to the building.
Bussabarger said he was assigned to block the road to the school from objectors.
‘We stood with sawhorses to open and close when (the students) arrived,’ he wrote. ‘Fixed bayonets, helmets and all, shoulder to shoulder; no one was to get by. When they came roaring down the street, we opened the sawhorses and closed them immediately … ‘
A station wagon carrying all nine students ‘flew in front of the school’ and the new Central High students got out and were ‘escorted by 327 troopers,’ Bussabarger said.
The Little Rock Nine had longed for this day, their chance to receive a better education than was offered to them at their old school. But no one had prepared them for how they would be treated by the white students.
Using her married name, Melba Pattillo Beals wrote a book, ‘Warriors Don’t Cry,’ that details much of what she endured during that school year and how the arrival of the troops made her ‘feel hopeful’ that she would be protected from the mob. She wrote about Danny, a member of the 101st who was assigned as her guard those early days that she was at school. Unfortunately, his orders didn’t include keeping her from harm or embarrassing encounters; he was only to make sure she wasn’t killed. Things became worse for her after the President removed the Army soldiers.
Bussabarger said it took about two weeks before the residents of Little Rock got used to having the soldiers in their community.
‘It was terrible at first,’ he said, reminding me that he and the other members of his unit were ‘just young kids, too,’ while they were ordered to control the segregationists.
‘Later, we could go into town, but we had to go in three’s,’ Bussabarger added.
Bussabarger remained in Little Rock for 44 days, doing his part to maintain order, at least around the perimeter of the building, even if the nine black students were experiencing a living hell inside the school.
‘Some (of the 101st) were not there that long,’ he said.
When Bussabarger’s order came for him and the remaining soldiers to leave, they drove back to Fort Campbell. The 101st’s job was done, but the nine black students still were trying to gain acceptance at their new school.
Beals and seven of the nine finished the school year, but it wasn’t easy. (Minnijean Brown moved to New York City to finish the school year after she was expelled from Central for retaliating against her harassers.)
If you really want to know what it was like for the Little Rock Nine, read Beals’ book. It’s unbelievable that humans could treat others the way they did.
The following school year, the governor shut down all of Little Rock’s high schools, as ‘they were still having problems,’ Bussabarger said.
Central High School re-opened the following year but without any black students. Not until September 1960 did the NAACP once more get a chance to give integration a go, this time with two blacks being allowed to attend classes at Central.
Bussabarger and his wife have traveled to Little Rock several times since 1957. The most recent was last September for the 50th anniversary of the state’s desegregation. All nine of the students who made history half a century ago gathered for the occasion. Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson also attended a special ceremony that included a tour of the school.
‘It looked pretty much the same,’ Bussabarger said.
Community Unity’s program tomorrow is open to the public and will be held at the Harrison County Community Foundation building in Corydon.