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Slouching toward equality 

SAFE WITH UNCLE SAM: The Army escorts the Nine to school on Sept. 25, 1957.
  • SAFE WITH UNCLE SAM: The Army escorts the Nine to school on Sept. 25, 1957.

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision May 17, 1954, outlawing school segregation, Gov. Francis A. Cherry declared that “Arkansas will obey the law.”

Virgil T. Blossom, superintendent of the Little Rock School District, told the Arkansas Gazette that the high court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka came as no surprise because he had believed for some time “that it was not a matter of ‘if' but ‘when' segregation would end.”

Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, praised the high court for taking “one more step toward total emancipation of the Negro.”

Bates' husband, L.C. Bates, publisher of the Arkansas State Press weekly newspaper, was less sanguine in observing: “If the South hasn't learned in 91 years to respect the rights of all its citizens, the decision doesn't mean much.”

L.C. Bates' appraisal came closest to the eventual truth.

Cherry lost his bid for re-election in the 1954 Democratic Party primary to Orval E. Faubus, a self-styled populist who said desegregation was a decision best made at the local level. He placed this “No. 1 issue” on the back-burner, however, after an Arkansas Gazette editorial criticized him for injecting race into the campaign. Faubus easily won the November general election in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and went on to serve six successive two-year terms. He accomplished these political victories at a time when any Arkansas governor was fortunate to be re-elected to a second term.

In retrospect, had Arkansans paid more attention to Faubus' views on race and how badly he wanted to remain as governor, would there have been a desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School?

And what would have happened if the U.S. Supreme Court had included instructions with its initial Brown ruling on how to implement desegregation, rather than waiting another year and leaving school boards across the South wondering how to plan desegregation, let alone actually put black students into white schools.

In Arkansas, Attorney General Tom Gentry cautioned the state Board of Education that Brown was “the law of the land and we are going to have to abide by it.” But the state board advised school districts to wait for the Supreme Court's directions on how to desegregate — the so-called Brown II decision — before taking any action. State NAACP leaders deplored this position. Still, in contrast to the sentiment in many southern states, the majority of the Arkansas Board of Education supported a strategy of minimal compliance with Brown, as opposed to outright defiance.

The Little Rock School District, at first, appeared be a leader in desegregation efforts. The School Board announced May 22 that, pending the Supreme Court's outline of “federal constitutional requirements,” the district would develop school-attendance zones and prepare for “the implementation of a sound school program on an integrated basis.” This was welcome news to the NAACP's Little Rock chapter, whose members were anxious to work with the School Board in developing a desegregation plan for all residents of the city. That summer, Daisy Bates attended every public speech that Superintendent Blossom made about school desegregation, but she learned next to nothing about what he and the School Board had in mind.

When the 1954-55 school year began without any black students enrolled in traditionally white Little Rock schools, the state NAACP's legal redress committee, headed by Pine Bluff attorney Wiley Branton, broached the School Board. Branton told board members that the NAACP expected to help “the board … map plans for integration with the aid of patrons, colored and white, and put them into effect as soon as possible and with as little trouble as possible.” Blossom replied that the district was trying its best to develop school-attendance zones and offered to meet with Branton and the NAACP committee when the desegregation studies were complete, in 30 to 60 days. The meeting never took place.

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