Little Rock Nine Commemorative

Three factors make or break a commemorative coin — subject matter, design, and rarity. Sadly, the Little Rock Nine commemorative drops the ball in all three areas, as Jay Turner demonstrates.

Three factors make or break a commemorative coin as a collectible — subject matter, design, and rarity. It is very rare that any commemorative is desirable in all three areas. Those that are become almost instantaneous successes. The Little Rock Nine commemorative, however, will sadly not be revered in any of the three areas.

It has been fifty years since the famous event when nine African American students entered Little Rock Central High School and became the first to desegregate the all-white student body. This event took place with the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, in which an earlier ruling establishing separate schools for black and white students was deemed inherently unconstitutional. Arkansas had begun preparations for the desegregation of the schools and to make the transition as smooth as possible, they wanted to begin with the Central High School in Little Rock. Nine students were chosen from the black school to begin the desegregation. The students were chosen based on their academic performance and attendance records.

coin side 1
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coin side 2
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Line art image of Little Rock High School Desegregation Silver Dollar, courtesy U.S. Mint

As school was to start on September 2nd, the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, called for the state National Guard to join protesting segregationists in surrounding Little Rock Central High School to prevent the black students from entering. The Little Rock Nine students would be barred from entry until a federal judge issued an injunction against the use of the National Guard and they were finally withdrawn on September 20th. On the 23rd, when the school was to resume after the weekend, the school was again surrounded by protesters attempting to prevent the students from entering, but this time the Little Rock police were there to keep order. The students entered the school quietly through a side door but once the protestors learned of this, they erupted in anger. The police, clearly outnumbered by the mob of protesters, removed the students from school to avoid a riot. It wouldn’t be until September 25th, and after an order from President Eisenhower, that 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne Division would escort and protect the nine students as they entered the school to attend class.

The importance of the Little Rock Nine was not just felt in Little Rock but worldwide. As these events took place, the media was there filming and reporting. Americans outside the South watched thousands of people stop nine students from entering a class and got a bitter taste of the hate that existed. Europeans witnessed the intolerance found in America. Russians and other communist countries used this as a tool to exhibit the flaws and intolerance of the American system. Yet, through it all, nine students went to school with dignity and in 1958, the first of many African Americans graduated from Little Rock Central High School .

The Little Rock Nine and the desegregation of schools is an important part of American history and certainly worthy of commemoration. Yet in terms of coin collecting, it is not a popular subject. While this was a tremendous accomplishment during the civil rights movement, it is also a point of shame and regret for many Americans. It is not a proud moment for Americans to remember — 1,000 Airborne infantry had to be deployed to keep the nine students from being harmed, or worse, by an angry crowd when all they wanted to do was attend school.

Aside from the subject matter, the design of the coin is considered very poor by many. The challenge is how to depict a subject of this magnitude. The design chosen, nine sets of feet walking with a butt of a gun in view, is not an appealing artistic feature to many. The reverse depicts the Little Rock Central High School building. The design barely does the event justice. Design concepts that included symbols of education, justice, law, liberty, and learning were rejected, but one wonders how the use of a different design might have impacted (if at all) the reception given these commemoratives.

Finally, regarding the scarcity of the coin, while it is a limited mintage, it does not appear that it will be at all rare. Since the modern coin market is so hot, very few coins are not being scooped up by collectors and dealers. Currently a little less than 90,000 of the 500,000 coins have been sold. At least another 50,000 will be included in Legacy sets. The numbers seem low; however, the coins have only recently been released. While the coins could possibly still be low mintage due to low demand, at current levels it seems unlikely, especially with at least six more months of sales to come.

The Little Rock Nine School Desegregation commemorative may not be desirable to some based on its design and subject matter. However, it is representative of an important and poignant time in U.S. history and that is why it is this month’s Modern Coin of the Month.

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