By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
One of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Era in the mid-20th century United States occurred when Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was formally integrated.
The United States Supreme Court ruling that served as the catalyst for integration in public school systems across the country had been handed down three years earlier in 1954 when the justices decided the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregation in the public school system under the “separate but equal” clause unconstitutional.
But the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School was an event worthy of recognition on a commemorative coin for different reasons.
A National Crisis
The desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock should have been uneventful, as determined by the findings of Brown v. Board of Education three years earlier. However, racism and resistance to integration during the late 1950s meant desegregation would prove challenging. That was certainly the situation during integration efforts at Central High, which became a flashpoint for violence when the school’s first nine black students enrolled and began attending classes there.
The nine Black students, soon to be known as “The Little Rock Nine”, made their way toward Central High School on the morning of September 4, 1957, the willing subjects of a racial experiment unfolding across the South. The nine students, escorted onto school grounds by police, were spat upon and assaulted by objects thrown by angry bystanders and even fellow students. The nine students only got so far as the front door. That is where stood Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who deployed the Arkansas National Guard to physically block the students from entering in objection to the federal desegregation ruling.
What ensued next was a power struggle between Governor Faubus and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who informed the Arkansas leader that “the Federal Constitution will be upheld by me by every legal means at my command.” The ongoing integration saga in Little Rock made international headlines, making Central High School a microcosmic focal point for the larger, nationwide issue of Civil Rights, playing out across the United States and particularly in the South.
Further attempts to walk the nine students into the school on September 23, 1957, were met with larger protests, and this led to President Eisenhower federalizing the entire Arkansas National Guard, meaning Governor Faubus would no longer have any jurisdiction over them. The president also commissioned the United States Army 101 Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to protect the Little Rock Nine as they made their way into the school. Infantry soldiers and others tasked with keeping peace both inside and outside the school maintained their presence there throughout the remainder of the school year.
An Enduring Legacy
Surely, the nation’s Civil Rights struggle didn’t end with the ringing of the last classroom bell of the 1957-58 schoolyear. Little Rock shut down its public school system for the following year, not reopening until Fall 1960. Over the course of the next decade, drugstore soda fountain counters, restaurants, public transportation, swimming pools, and suburban neighborhoods became additional settings for further desegregation.
Yet, so many of the successes that came with the integration journey of the late 1950s and points thereafter can be traced back to the struggles of the Little Rock Nine that took place at Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. Surely the dramatic events that unfolded there helped change many hearts – something necessary as further integration ensued throughout every facet of American life in the years that followed.
For that reason, desegregation of Central High School was more than merely a legal achievement and even more than a singular highlight in the Civil Rights timeline. It was a watershed moment for America – and Americans – as they stepped into a new future and more faithfully lived according to the promise of our Constitution.
The 2007 Desegregation Dollar
The 50th anniversary of desegregation at Central High School was a major milestone, one deemed worthy of numismatic commemoration. The coin was authorized by Public Law 109-146 and signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 22, 2005, and became the second commemorative coin issued in 2007.
The Act permitted the striking of up to 500,000 silver dollars honoring the 50th anniversary of desegregation at Central High School, with surcharges from the sale of the coin to benefit the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and to help provide funding for educational programs and the development of new preservation projects on and around the school property.
The obverse of the coin was designed by Richard Masters and features students accompanied by an armed United States soldier as they walk into Central High School, the façade of which is grandly presented in three-quarter profile on the reverse by Don Everhart. The coin was struck in Uncirculated and Proof formats, with pre-issue prices of $33 and $35, respectively; regular issue prices were $35 and $39. A companion bronze medal honoring the Little Rock Nine was also produced and was sold as a pair with the 2007 Desegregation dollar for $40.
Both the Uncirculated and Proof versions of the 2007 Desegregation dollar were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, with a total of 124,678 Proofs distributed and just 66,093 Uncirculated specimens sold. The mintages for the 2007-P Desegregation dollar, particularly the Uncirculated piece, were relatively low. However, both Proofs and business strikes are readily available in the marketplace and are common up through the PCGS MS70 and PCGS PR70DCAM levels.
According to PCGS CoinFacts, there is only a modest jump in value from the 69 numerical grade to the 70 in the cases of both the uncirculated and proof issues.
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