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Courage Central

Courage Central

By Marty Sammon ’56, MBA ’63

Minnijean Brown, 15 years old, and other members of the Little Rock Nine on the morning of Sept. 25, 1957. View full image. Photography by A.Y. Owen/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
September 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas. Nine African-American kids wanted to go to school. The 101st Airborne was sent there to help. One of those paratroopers tells the story.

Here’s how it happened. I was at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, a second lieutenant and jump master with 327th Battle Group of the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles, when we got the order in September ’57 that we were moving out. I thought we were going to Cuba. Castro and the rebels were on the march. But this soldier Gomez, he says, “Nah, we’re going to Little Rock.” “Why?” I said. “We going to integrate some high school?” It was always some soldier or some NCO who knows everything, ’cause they’re all connected!

Little Rock had been in the news for weeks already. When I learned that we weren’t bringing any artillery, even our mortars—we were a mortar battery—I knew we weren’t going into combat. We got on the plane and they read our orders: “Your assignment: Go to Little Rock Central High School, and enforce the integration.” That’s how they put it—“enforce the integration.” I took it to mean “by whatever means necessary.” My instructions to my guys were: “Nobody touches the kids, and nobody touches you. You act accordingly and we won’t have any problem.”

The Arkansas National Guard was already at Central High by order of the governor, Orval Faubus. But he didn’t want the school to integrate, and he kept saying that if they were forced to integrate there would be blood in the streets. He was the one stirring up the trouble. But the Supreme Court had said in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that segregation had to end, and three years later finally a judge ordered Central High to integrate.

Now, one of the problems with the National Guard is they’re all local guys, they’re neighbors with the people out there rioting in front of the school trying to keep these kids from going in. So Eisenhower sent us.

They fly us and our gear down there the afternoon of September 24 on C-130s and C-123s. It was all over television—how 1,200 battle-equipped paratroopers were coming to make sure the integration could be carried out without further violence. We convoyed over the school, jeeps and trucks and gear, and got there very late at night, and we didn’t know what to expect. The school had 2,000 students and is about two blocks long—there on Park Street, stretching between 14th and 16th. We knock on the door, and the custodian answers it, and he’s standing there with .22 pistol!

Since we were a mortar battery, our weapon is a carbine, which is not that intimidating. So we were inside the school. We went in there and checked everything out. Now you get an M1 rifle with a bayonet, and that’s intimidating—those guys had the perimeter. It was tough. The first thing our guys did was move the people out, and put a perimeter around. Because people would all gather around the school, and as soon as they saw the kids, they’d start to riot.

There were nine kids we were there to help. Later I learned that they had started with 25 who were willing to do it, but most of them decided it was too dangerous. Three of them were boys. The oldest was Ernest Green, a senior, and there was Terrence Roberts and Jefferson Thomas. For the girls, there was little Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Mothershed, there was Melba Pattillo and Minnijean Brown who were good friends, and also Carlotta Walls and Gloria Ray.

ONE BIG BLUFF

Wednesday, September 25 was the first morning, so some of our guys, about 50, went to pick up the nine kids at the house where they had gathered. Some of these kids were as young as 14. They all climb into an army station wagon and our guys move out, jeeps in front and in back. Near the school there are people lining the streets like for a parade, only some people are shouting and screaming the most vile stuff. The roar—that was scary. Since then I’ve been to big fights and a Super Bowl and never heard a sound like that. It was like an earthquake. At the school we have helicopters overhead and of course reporters and photographers practically hanging from the trees, and people shouting “Two, four, six, eight! We ain’t gonna integrate!”

From day one we wanted to show that we were going to take the kids in the front door. About 20 of our guys with bayonets fixed went down and made a phalanx around the kids. Now remember, we didn’t have any ammunition. I was carrying a .45 caliber pistol. It was all just one big bluff. But my instructions were: “Don’t even let them think that you don’t have any ammunition.” Though we did have snipers on the roof.

Members of the 101st Airborne escort African American students to school
Portal to portal protection: Sept. 26, 1957. Members of the 101st Airborne escort African American students to school, carrying out President Eisenhower’s orders to enforce a federal court ruling to integrate Central High.Photography by Bettmann/Getty Images

We marched right up those steps with them and through those doors. I was real careful when I went up the steps. One of the high school football stars was there, and I knew this guy was gonna try to trip me. We were wearing those big black jump boots, and I caught him right above the shin—and he went down hard. Years later some of the women who had been there at the time, I met them and they said, “Oh, you’re the one that kicked so-and-so down the stairs. Oh, he was gonna get you. But nobody wanted to mess with you.” So, that was good. But I wasn’t that big—about 5-foot-10, weighed just under 180.

We didn’t have any animosity; we were just doing a job. I’d come from California, though I was born in Ohio, Steubenville—my dad was a steelworker—but growing up I wasn’t used to this stuff. Although in Boston, when my grandfather was there, he remembered seeing signs that said Irish need not apply. And I always say: When you’re jumping out of an airplane, it doesn’t matter what the race is of the guy behind you. You just want to know if he knows how to fire his weapon and he’s got your back. A lot of our officers were from the South, but they backed it up. They weren’t for it, but they did what they were supposed to do, and that was get the kids in school, whatever it took.

“When you’re jumping out of an airplane, it doesn’t matter what the race is of the guy behind you. You just want to know if he knows how to fire his weapon and if he’s got your back.” 

So we got the kids inside, and they were all split up to go to their different classes. Each one of them had one of our guys assigned to them, to follow them around and make sure they didn’t get hurt. But we would try to stay a few steps back in the hall or stand outside the classroom—and still, what those kids put up with was just awful: the names and other kids spitting on them.

They made it through that first day and we gathered them in the principal’s office and took them out the way we’d come in, with soldiers all around them. Later Melba Pattillo joked about that day of school as “Readin’, writin’, and riotin’.”

We set up camp on the football field: our jeeps and trucks and tents. And though we had a perimeter around the school, you had folks trying to break through to get the kids. There was one time it seemed like all hell had broken loose, and to get the kids through safely there’s one cop saying, “Well, we’re gonna let ’em have this one girl. And while they’re lynching her, we’ll get the others ones past.” I says, “Bullshit! We’re not gonna be doing anything like that. You get the hell out, or I’m gonna report you to your chief. You can be a dogcatcher for the rest of your career.”

The second day when we took the kids up the front steps there were a few hundred students who tried to block the doors. We got them out of the way.

I had the bottom floor of the school. I remember going by the music class, and when the teacher saw me, she’d lead the class in “Dixie”—you know, “I wish I was in the land…” That must’ve been tough, when you’re a black kid in a class and they’re all singing “Dixie.”

The girls’ bathroom was near where I was stationed. When Melba Pattillo was in there, the white kids would throw cigarettes at her, and they’d roll toilet paper up and light it on fire and throw it at her when she’s in there doing her business. So I went in there to make sure nobody was in there, then the bell rang and they saw me coming out. So there it was in the newspaper: “A paratrooper was spotted going into the girls’ bathroom.” I told my captain, “That was me.” He says, “Ah, don’t worry about it—they’re gonna make up all kinds of stories. Just try to stay out of the bathrooms, if you can.”

I just went in there to make sure it was safe. There was nobody in there. But there were signs saying Nigger go home. So I asked them to take that down.

“MOVE A LITTLE FASTER.”

Now this was September, and it was hot. And really humid. On the perimeter there would be a bunch of young toughs, and later on they would try to get the kids when they came through in different spots. We did that on purpose. We’d get those young toughs running back and forth and they’d just get exhausted. They never figured that one out. I mean, you learn that in plane geometry: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I said, “You guys oughta take a math class.”

One morning, across the street from school they hanged a straw figure and set it on fire. Anything they could do to try to scare those nine kids away. Even so, I think most of the people in Little Rock were okay—they were fairly sophisticated. There were the radicals from outside. There was one guy named Jimmy “the Flash” Karam, from Atlanta; he was a professional strike-breaker. He had all these stories about how he was an All-American football player at Auburn. But then he roughed up a Life magazine photographer. So then the newspaper comes out with his real story: “Jimmy ‘the Flash’ did go to Auburn, did try out for the football team, but he never made the freshman team, because he wasn’t good enough.” We never saw Jimmy after that; he pretty much disappeared.

There was another guy, C.E. Blake, he said he was an ex-Marine. (There’s always an ex-Marine, right? He probably never was in the service.) He had this house on the corner by the school, and everybody was a guest in the house; they must have had 186 guests that first week. The National Guard or the cops would come and run ’em off, and they’d say, “Nah, I’m a guest over in this house.” Blake decided he was gonna show everybody how to disarm a paratrooper. Talk about bad luck: Who was the guy he picked? Clifford May—he was in the last bayonet charge in modern history, at Pork Chop Hill in Korea. They had run out of ammunition and they were right below a Chinese bunker, and they knew up there was plenty of ammunition. So with about 20 guys, with bayonets, they went in, and they did it—they took out the bunker.

May told me about it later. “I’m standing there, Lieutenant, you know, and it’s hot, I think, ‘God, I wish—’ All of a sudden, I look out, and this guy’s got the guard on my rifle and he’s pulling on it.” So May does what you’re supposed to: He just flips his rifle around and hit Blake in the head with the butt. And of course Blake, he says, “I just got assaulted!”

Another time we were trying to push back some of them and we’ve got our bayonets forward to keep them moving and this guy said, “I’m Southern. I don’t move fast.” Well, he got stuck in the arm with a bayonet. That got his attention. I said, “You’d better learn to move a little faster, then, shouldn’t you?”

The first week, like I said, we set up camp on the football field, and we dressed and undressed there. Of course, people were complaining they saw a naked man. So then we moved to a place called Camp Robinson, out of town, and we’d just drive in every morning.

One of the kids, Jefferson Thomas, they called the Roadrunner. He was a trackman. But they wouldn’t let him or the other kids compete in anything. And in football Central High was, like, 36 straight wins. They were pretty good. Since we were there a few weeks, we’d go to the games—and they would ignore us. So, one of our guys started to act as a yell leader, and you’ve got 700 of us, we could make a lot of noise. So we’re all cheering for Central High, and it bugged the hell out of everybody.

Well, it all worked out well, and nobody got hurt—that was a big thing. We had never been trained for anything like that. Our guys, I thought, did really a good job. And then because of that, they sent ’em other places, like University of Alabama.

A TOUGH YEAR

I was there in Little Rock about seven weeks. Left early November. About half of our unit was there longer. We turned it over to the National Guard, and then they did okay. But it’s kind of tough—you’re guarding your neighbor.

For the kids, though, that was one hell of a tough year. In the halls or the stairwells, other kids would throw things at them or spray ink on them or kick them. After some of the other students picked a fight with Minnijean Brown—there was an incident with a bowl of chili in the cafeteria, and later some girls threw a purse at her and she called them white trash. She got expelled that winter. But she was invited up to a special private school in New York with a full scholarship.

The rest of the nine made it through the year. And that May, Ernest Green received his diploma and became the first black student to graduate from Central High.

That wasn’t the end of it. The governor still hadn’t given up on trying to keep the schools from integrating. But the courts told him he had to. So instead, for the fall of 1958 he closed all the high schools in Little Rock. But that couldn’t stop those kids.

WHY WE FIGHT

It’s always fascinating where people are from and where they go. I was born in 1934 in Ohio: Steubenville, 39 miles downriver from Pittsburgh. It was a wide-open town when I was there: legalized gambling, legalized prostitution. Our town had only 38,000 people but you’ve probably heard of a couple. Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder was from there. So was Dean Martin, who wanted to turn pro as a fighter, because he was a good boxer. He was singing at the Half Moon Club, and they said, “Nah, stick with the singing.” His name was Dino Crocetti and he used to play the Olympic Cigar Store, which was about this big—but then they had the backroom with the wires, the tracks, the roulette wheels, and then upstairs the girls for the high-rollers. Traci Lords, the porn actress, was from Steubenville, too. I got a picture—fully clothed—that she autographed. She wrote: “To Marty: We both made it out.”

School daze: Marty Sammon ’56, MBA ’63 (center) and fellow members of the 101st Airborne look on while the African American students they are there to protect try to go about some semblance of a normal day.Photography courtesy Look Magazine

I didn’t mind Steubenville. But we left Ohio in 1947 because my father lost his job. We moved to Fontana, California. Then Antioch. Then Bella Vista, in Pittsburg. We were the only white family there.

One place that I learned about courage was in the boxing ring. How good was I as a fighter? Oh, I wasn’t any good. I started boxing in college and there was one fight they described as being the bloodiest in that arena in history. Problem was, it was all my blood. Aristotle said that our universities do a wonderful job of teaching; the only thing they don’t offer is a course on courage. Boxing is a course on courage. That’s why when the other colleges dropped it, the Jesuits kept it. When I was 20, I wanted to be the light heavyweight champion of the world. When I was 22, I was looking for other avenues. Of course, when I was 23, I found myself in the Army.

I played football and ran track in college. I was a defensive end. But Pat Malley moved me to defensive back. There was no call for 175-pound defensive ends. But I stuck with boxing in the Army. I had been in ROTC in college and went in after graduation in February 1957. Got married to my sweetheart Rosemarie on a 15-day leave and then I took my wife on a wonderful honeymoon, to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. She had never been farther than Lake Tahoe. The first time she goes into the laundry she sees one sign that says colored and another one that says white. She thinks it’s for the clothes. No, it was for people.

There was none of that crap on post, but it was all over. I used to violate it all. I coached the post boxing team, and we’d go to Donaldson Air Force Base, which is Greenville, South Carolina. Now, on post they couldn’t do any of that, but I remember this one tournament, we were fighting in some high school gym, and the guy running it said, “I hope you got no white boys fighting niggers.”

And I said, “Well, I’m fighting a guy named Prince.” He said, “Well, you can’t do that here—it’s against the law.” I said, “Well, you don’t have a show, do you?” “But I already sold tickets.” “Well, you shouldn’t have sold tickets to a show you couldn’t hold. You’ll learn that way.”

When I had guys fighting for me, I’d change their name, or maybe I’d change where they were from. Like we’re in Greenville, so I ask one of my guys who’s black, “Can I have you from Greenville?”

So he’d be announced at the ring: From Greenville, South Carolina

And the crowd would start cheering. …

Harold Brown!

And they go, “Oh, shit.”

I used to do that all the time. Sometimes the kids would say, “Where am I from tonight, Lieutenant?” I’d always have a guy be a local guy. And if it was in the South, I’d always try to make sure he was black. Because we had no segregation on the boxing team. We had a guy, Harry Campbell, who fought on the Olympic team with Cassius Clay. We had a good team. I took eight guys to the interservice, and I had eight in the finals.

This isn’t boxing, but there was one time I was at Fort Knox for maneuvers. We were coming out of Catholic service and this guy salutes me, and I returned the salute. “At ease, son.” One of the guys I knew was with me and he said, “You know who that was just saluted you?” “No.” And he says, “That singer from Memphis, Elvis Presley. He got drafted. His career is over.” I said, “Well, maybe not.”

I got out of the Army in 1959—after two years, seven months, and 26 days. Went to work at Lockheed and they paid for my MBA at Santa Clara. But I didn’t like working for somebody else. I always liked the stock market, so I became a stockbroker, started with Sutro. My classmates became very successful, and dragged me along with them. But I didn’t leave boxing.

Though I’ll say this: The human body wasn’t made for football, boxing, or rodeo. I’ve been a judge and referee for decades. Started working in San Quentin in the ’70s, before I got a pro license. I figure I’ve probably judged about 10,000 fights by now. I’ve done 76 World Title fights.

The most infamous fight I’ve ever done was back in 1992. Mark Gastineau, the football player, fought a guy named Tim “Doc” Anderson, and the fight was fixed. They were gonna have Anderson lose so Gastineau could fight George Foreman. I got wind of it, and I just told both of ’em, “If you don’t fight, you don’t get paid. And if somebody goes down without getting hit, you’re not getting paid. You’re gonna end up getting fined.” Anderson won, they had a rematch in Oklahoma, and Anderson said someone poisoned him; he ended up shooting the promoter. He’s still in prison.

I’ve judged pro fights in the United States and in the Far East—Thailand, Japan, Korea. Been to Montreal and London and Dublin, a couple of fights in Moscow and St. Petersburg. New Zealand and Australia—when I went there, my son, Michael, was playing rugby so I got to see him. The last one I did internationally was in Mexico, in Guadalajara, in 2013. I got into a barroom brawl myself a couple of years ago. A guy made some crack about my son.

I’ve got boxes full of photos from over the years. There’s a picture of me with Muhammad Ali. I had it autographed in Vegas. He says, “What’s your name?” and I says, “Marty.” And he says, “Where did we get this picture taken?” and I says, “Las Vegas.” He signed it and he says, “God, I’m pretty.” I says, “You sure are.” And he says, “You’re ugly.” I says, “I know, but I’m not as ugly as Joe Frazier.” And he goes, “That’s my line! That’s my line!”

And I’ve got a picture of me and Joe Frazier. He could fight. You never had to go looking for Joe Frazier, you know what I’m saying?

There have been the movies, playing the ref in Million Dollar Baby with Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank. He’s from the East Bay, too. And she did all her own stunts. I was in The Rookie, with Charlie Sheen, too, and Flags of Our Fathers.

Rosemarie has been my sweetheart for more than 60 years. We’re grandparents now. Our son passed away at age 39—that’s not supposed to happen. He was schizophrenic, and he got a pulmonary embolism and died in 2006. I can’t figure that out. He was a good rugby player. Our daughters Sharon ’82 and Lisa ’83 live nearby. Sharon had her first baby a few years ago. Little Emily is 6 now. Emily is fantastic. She’s got a personality that won’t quit.

No, I’ve been blessed.

ALL THEY WANTED

The kids from Little Rock—I still call them kids, but they’re all in their 70s now. Only Jefferson Thomas isn’t still alive. He narrated an Academy Award–winning documentary about Little Rock and became an accountant with the Department of Defense. After the governor closed the high schools, the kids found other places to go. Melba Pattillo was invited out to Santa Rosa, California, and went to school and became a journalist, and then Melba Pattillo-Beals went on to be a professor of communication at Dominican University. She used to call me every September and say, “Thanks for saving my life,” which I always thought was cool. She’s written books about Little Rock, too. And one thing she said was, “My grandmother always said, we got in a tight spot, we’d have a guardian angel.” And she said, “My guardian angel was a young paratrooper by the name of Marty Sammon.” That was nice of her.

“My grandmother always said, we got in a tight spot, we’d have a guardian angel ... My guardian angel was a young paratrooper by the name of Marty Sammon.” 

I also keep in touch with Terrence Roberts. He got his Ph.D. in psychology, helped run a hospital in Napa, then was at UCLA, and now he’s a consultant. Gloria Ray went on to become a patent attorney. Ernest Green was part of the Carter administration and then a managing director with Lehman Brothers. Thelma Mothershed went and taught in Illinois and then moved back to Little Rock. Elizabeth Eckford, she was only 15 that first year. She came back to Little Rock and became a social worker and a probation officer. One day in ’57 after there had been a bomb scare at the school we came back in force, she came up to me and said, “I’m glad you’re back. They’re afraid of you.” Minnijean Brown-Trickey, not too long ago she was teaching a college class with my son’s sister-in-law, and I spoke there. She said she’s always been embarrassed, because the 101st saved her life, then she married a guy who was draft-dodging the Vietnam War, and they moved to Canada!

Ten years ago, for the 50th anniversary, we all got together in Little Rock. And this year they are putting up a statue in front of the school to honor those kids’ struggle. Go over to the state capitol and there’s a monument to them as well. Here’s the thing, though. All those kids wanted to do is get a good education. They showed so much courage. They didn’t quit.

 

MARTY SAMMON took time to tell us his stories in May. He passed away on September 14. He was a man of courage. A memorial service was held for him at Mission Santa Clara on September 28.

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