The C-130 Hercules, known for performing a variety of missions, began its career supporting a dream of nine black students seeking a brighter future.
“It was a humanitarian mission of the highest order,” said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Marson, 314th Airlift Wing command chief, during a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembrance event at the base theater recently. “It was not a difficult mission, but it was a significant one. It was significant to the 314th AW, to the City of Little Rock, and it was most assuredly significant to nine black students wanting to better themselves by attending Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957.”
In May 1954, the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation was unconstitutional in public schools in the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. A year later, the Little Rock School board adopted the Blossom Plan, which called for gradual integration, starting at the high school level in the fall of 1957 and trickling down to the lower grades during the next six years, according to a National Park Service website listing historic places of the civil rights movement.
“In 1957, Central High was a segregated all-white school, despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing forced segregation,” said Chris Rumley, 314th AW historian. “When Earnest Green and his black classmates attempted to attend their first day of school on that warm, sunny morning of Sept. 4, 1957, National Guardsmen, on order from the state governor, stood in their path and prevented them from entering school.”
Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, tried to walk through the front door of the school but National Guardsmen turned her away.
“Walking alone, surrounded by a threatening and jeering crowd, this young teenage girl made her way to the bus stop, sat down on the bench and waited for a bus to take her to her mother’s work place,” said Mr. Rumley, citing historical information from his research. “[Miss Eckford] later recalled, ‘I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob - someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.’”
Ten days later, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and agreed to use the National Guard to protect the Little Rock Nine. When Governor Faubus returned to Little Rock, though, he dismissed the Guardsmen, “leaving the nine students exposed to an angry mob,” according to the U.S. NPS website.
The Little Rock Nine was finally able to enter Central High School on Sept. 23, 1957, under escort by Little Rock police. Unable to control the crowds outside the school, police evacuated the nine and brought them back to their homes, said Mr. Rumley.
In response to this, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard, removing them from the governor’s control and ordered federal troops into Little Rock to escort and protect the nine students. Enter C-130 airlift support.
Airlifting the 101st Airborne Division was considered one of the first operational missions for the C-130, said Mr. Rumley. “C-130s flown by crews from the 314th Airlift Wing (then the 314th Troop Carrier Wing) flew from Sewart Air Force Base, Tenn., to Fort Campbell, Ky., where they loaded up 1,200 troops from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and transported them right to Central Arkansas.
“When the nine went back to school two days later, this time with escorts from the 101st Airborne armed with M-1 rifles, bayonets attached, no one stood in their way, no unruly mobs heckled, jeered at, spit-on or otherwise threatened them,” Mr. Rumley added, citing information from his research.
Earnest Green, the only senior of the nine, graduated with the class of 1958. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended his graduation ceremony, said Mr. Rumley.
“In 1999, all of the nine received our country’s highest honor, Congressional Gold Medals, and all were invited to the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2008,” Mr. Rumley said.
Although the C-130 flew in a non-combat capacity, the Hercules aircraft fulfilled a noble mission.
“That first C-130 mission was to support a dream, the dream of nine black students to better themselves and to have the right to live in an integrated society that lived up to its own ideal that all men and women are created equal,” said Chief Marson. “I am proud that the C-130’s first mission came here to Little Rock AFB and brought the forces needed to protect those dreams.”
(Compiled by 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs)