Nine from Little Rock
Nine from Little Rock is a short documentary film produced in 1964. Coming less than a decade after the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County), the film checks back with the Little Rock Nine—Melba Pattillo, Carlotta Walls, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray, Minnijean Brown, Thelma Mothershed, Ernest Green, Jefferson Thomas, and Terrence Roberts—offering an update on their lives, while also including some reflections by the pioneering students on the personal impact of their efforts.
Nine from Little Rock was a production of the United States Information Agency (USIA). Commissioned by USIA’s director of the Motion Picture and Television Service, George Stevens Jr., it focused not on the controversial integration effort of 1957, but rather on the nine students and the way their role had impacted their hopes and dreams. USIA sought to use the film, in the words of an internal agency memo, to demonstrate “America’s commitment to freedom of the individual and justice under law.” It also sought to document the role of the federal government in “upholding the law and protecting minorities” following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
As the film was made and released at a time when civil rights efforts were reaching a peak in the mid-1960s, the USIA sought to share the film at international youth festivals and universities where countless numbers of young people were following the evolving ideas surrounding race in the United States. The film was also shown in nearly 100 cities outside the United States.
The film, directed by Charles Guggenheim, was awarded the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary in March 1965. It was the first of four Oscars that Guggenheim, one of America’s most celebrated documentary filmmakers, would earn and was one of twelve nominations he garnered over his career.
With Jefferson Thomas, walking through the halls of Central High School, serving as narrator, the twenty-minute film allowed the Nine to recount some of their experiences as integration pioneers while also sharing what they achieved in the aftermath and how the experience helped shape their subsequent lives. While the beginning includes some footage of the historic and well-documented early days of confrontation, Nine from Little Rock sought to deal more with the human dimension that was the Little Rock Nine, a group of courageous African American students seeking an education, whose aspirations and ambitions were really at the heart of the film. In that way, the film attempted to offer an answer to the questions Thomas posed: “What has happened? Where have we gone? What have we done?”
In answering those questions and sharing their stories, the film showed that for all their historical significance, the nine students from Little Rock were young people with the same dreams and desire for an education and the same fears (and admittedly additional ones as well) that all high school and college students—Black or white—have and that in going forward and learning from their experience, they were helping to make the country a better place.
As intended by the USIA, Nine from Little Rock is something of a propaganda piece at a critical time in the Cold War, but it is also a film that adds a human dimension to an important episode in the still unfolding civil rights movement.
For additional information:
Kovac, Criss. “The Unwritten Record: Restoring Nine from Little Rock.” National Archives. https://unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/2015/03/16/restoring-nine-from-little-rock/ (accessed October 25, 2022).
Nine From Little Rock (1964). National Archives. (accessed July 13, 2022). https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/nine-from-little-rock (accessed October 25, 2022).
“The Little Rock Nine.” Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/people/the-little-rock-nine.htm (accessed October 25, 2022).
Wire, Sarah D. “National Archives Digitizes LR Nine Film to Mark Its ’65 Oscar Win.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 5, 2015, pp. 1A, 8A.
William H. Pruden III
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