In the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education (1954) the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated education was unconstitutional. The Court's decision was met with widespread anger across the South, with many people believing that it was an attack on their whole way of life. White supremacism was rife in the South at that time, and segregation was the most important means of maintaining it. Elected officials in the Southern states openly proclaimed that they would defy any moves towards desegregation. One such official was Orval Faubus, governor of Arkansas. He called out the State Guard, ostensibly to uphold law and order, but in actual fact to prevent Melba and the other African American students from attending Central High.
In response, President Eisenhower sent Governor Faubus a telegram on 5th September, 1957, in which he made it clear that he expected the Arkansas state authorities to comply with the district court's order to start desegregation immediately. He did not, however, and so Eisenhower subsequently sent 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne into Arkansas to ensure that Melba and the eight other African American students were able to attend school.