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Sarah Huckabee Sanders invoked the Little Rock Nine. Here’s their real story.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) reflected on her time at Little Rock Central High School in her response to the State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave the Republican response to President Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night from a beautiful room in her new digs: the Arkansas governor’s mansion. Last month, she became the state’s first female governor, and as one of her first acts in office, she told viewers, she “banned CRT” — critical race theory — from Arkansas schools and said she would focus her administration on education. The Biden administration supported “government control” and “‘woke’ fantasies,” she said.

About halfway into her speech, Sanders turned to history.

“Down the street from where I sit is my alma mater, Little Rock Central High,” she said. “As a student there, I will never forget watching my dad, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and President Bill Clinton hold the doors open to the Little Rock Nine — doors that 40 years earlier had been closed to them because they were Black.”

She continued, “Today, those children once barred from the schoolhouse are now heroes memorialized in bronze at our statehouse.”

There’s a lot of history to unpack here, so let’s start at the beginning: The Little Rock Nine were nine African American high school students who, in 1957, integrated Little Rock’s Whites-only high school.

Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had struck down public school segregation in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, but that didn’t mean schools nationwide suddenly flung open their doors to all students. Arkansas’s governor, Orval Faubus, fought implementation of the ruling, and on Sept. 2, 1957, the night before the nine students were scheduled to start, he called in the state National Guard to block their entry to the school, claiming it was for their protection.

Federal troops escorted nine African American students into Central High School in Little Rock on Sept. 25, 1957 as an anti-integration mob stood outside. (Video: The National Archives)

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The next day, a federal judge ordered the Little Rock Nine to be allowed to attend the school, but on Sept. 4 they were blocked again, this time by both the National Guard and an angry mob made up of White students and their parents. A photo taken that day of a young White woman screaming at one of the Black students, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, has become one of the defining images of the civil rights movement.

Two weeks later, a federal judge ordered the removal of the National Guard, and on Sept. 23, local police escorted the nine students in through a side door. Hours later, as the mob outside tried to break into the building, the students were evacuated and sent home for their safety.

Finally, after a plea for help from Little Rock’s mayor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took action. He federalized the National Guard troops, placing them under his command, and sent in 1,200 members in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. On Sept. 25, the Little Rock Nine arrived at school in U.S. Army vehicles and were escorted to their classrooms by uniformed soldiers.

The victory was short-lived: The next year, Faubus, with support from voters, closed Little Rock’s public high schools for the entire school year to prevent further integration.

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So it’s true that this huge moment in American history happened at the high school Sanders would attend decades later. And it’s true there is now a bronze memorial honoring the Little Rock Nine on the Arkansas Capitol grounds. But there are also three Confederates memorials there — and that is symbolic of what Sanders glossed over in the history she cited. Like the Civil War, the fight over school desegregation was one of states’ rights versus federal power, and in both cases, federal power won.

The bravery of the nine students — who endured horrific and daily harassment before and after they came to the school — cannot be discounted. But it also took federal judges, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Army and the president to desegregate one Arkansas high school. If Sanders hoped to elevate her party’s “limited government” platform or denigrate the president’s love of “government control,” as she put it, the Little Rock Nine is not a useful example.

(Faubus was a Democrat, and Eisenhower a Republican, but this episode precedes the party realignment of the mid-20th century spurred in part by the civil rights movement.)

In her speech Tuesday, Sanders said she would soon announce a sweeping education package, but her administration’s focus on Arkansas schools has already begun. Prompted by her executive order prohibiting “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools,” state authorities are investigating an advanced placement course in African American studies taught at Little Rock Central High School, where the majority of the student body is now Black.