Fifty years ago, Little Rock brought to an end its long-standing policy of racial segregation in most downtown public and some private facilities. It eventually did so without the upheaval and conflict experienced in many other Southern cities. In the April 1963 edition of Jet magazine, black reporter John Britton wrote a feature-length story about the city's progress. He quoted James Forman, executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as saying that Little Rock was "just about the most integrated [city] in the south."
The picture was a far cry from September 1957, when the Little Rock school crisis made the city a symbol of racial hatred around the world. Although white businessmen seized control of the Little Rock School Board from segregationists and reopened schools on a token desegregated basis in August 1959, the city had remained in an economic quagmire. Many businesses refused to locate to the city, fearing bad publicity and difficulty in recruiting employees.
Yet white businessmen were slow to grasp the lessons of 1957. While many other chambers of commerce in the South vowed not to become "another Little Rock" and to instead address their racial issues head on, Little Rock leaders initially buried their heads in the sand. As director of industrial development for the city's chamber of commerce Everett Tucker put it, "The best thing for Little Rock to do now is nothing."
Paralyzed by fear of negative publicity should it try to instigate any form of racial change, Little Rock began to fall behind other Southern cities. When the 1960 sit-in movement led by black college students erupted across the South, many upper-South cities took the opportunity to desegregate facilities. Business leaders there argued that segregation was no longer worth the economic disruption caused by black protests. The situation in Little Rock was very different. When black students from Philander Smith College tried to launch a sit-in movement in the city, they met with harsh fines and stiff prison sentences that quickly ground the movement to a halt.
In 1961, the Freedom Rides arrived in Little Rock. The rides had gained national attention earlier that year when, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), groups of interracial riders on interstate buses had met with violent resistance in their attempts to use bus terminals that were under federal court order to desegregate.
Little Rock's Freedom Riders were part of a follow-up campaign of demonstrations across the South. City police arrested the Freedom Riders on arrival. However, they were offered a deal by local Judge Quinn Glover: agree to leave the state and go home and they would be released. When they refused this request, Glover was ready to throw the book at them. Only at that point did city leaders intervene. Again, the fear of negative racial headlines drove their response. Glover recanted and allowed the Freedom Riders to continue their journey out of the state.
Though the Freedom Ride failed to make the desired impact on whites in Little Rock, it did act as a catalyst for action in the black community. Dismayed by the city's response to the sit-ins and embarrassed by the treatment of the Freedom Riders, a young cadre of black medical professionals, Dr. William H. Townsend, Dr. Morris A. Jackson, Dr. Garman P. Freeman and his wife Dr. Evangeline Upshur, decided to act. In the 1960s, their offices on Wright Avenue became the headquarters of a new local civil rights organization, the Council on Community Affairs (COCA).
COCA dedicated itself to providing the type of coordinated black community leadership needed to address the city's continuing segregation. On March 8, 1962, 22 of its members filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city Board of Directors for the desegregation of "public parks, recreational facilities, Joseph T. Robinson Auditorium and all other public facilities." Members of the City Board were willing to admit that the desegregation of public facilities was "a foregone conclusion" if the case went to court, but they remained committed to fighting the lawsuit if only to buy time to devise other methods to avoid desegregation.
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