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Why did it happen here? 

click to enlarge LITTLE ROCK, 1957: Two boys in a downtown sandlot watch a segregationist parade.
  • LITTLE ROCK, 1957: Two boys in a downtown sandlot watch a segregationist parade.

“Arkansas has a favored position in the South because of its attitude on the segregation-integration question. The attitude of the state is known to be that it will not accept the dictates of outsiders on local affairs. We have the good will of the South, but because the state is moderate and progressive and has had no incidents to cause a storm of criticism, we have not lost the good will nor the respect of those who have opposite views.”

— Gov. Orval E. Faubus, March, 14, 1957,

at end of legislative session

“Prior to this time in Arkansas, the hand of fellowship and mutual self-respect has everywhere been extended between the races. Much progress has been made in this field and in others pertaining to the progress of the state and the human welfare of all citizens.

“Under my administration, all transportation systems have been integrated and without serious incidents. Six of the seven state-supported colleges now have Negro students. In the other, there were no applicants.

“I was the first Democratic governor of the South to place the Negroes on the Democratic State Central Committee. Negroes also serve on the Republican committee.

Some years ago I was a member of the Resolutions Committee, which recommended to the Democratic State Convention that the so-called white primary be abolished, opening the Democratic primaries to the members of all races. The convention adopted the resolution and this was accomplished without any ruling by any federal court.

“Negroes have been appointed on boards and commission during my administration and have been appointed to administration positions never before held by members of their race.

“Eight public schools have been peacefully integrated during my administration — more than in any other Southern state outside the border areas. The first Negro to graduate from law school in a Southern college previously all-white was in Arkansas and the first Negro doctor to graduate from a previously all-white Southern college was in Arkansas. All this adds up to greater progress in Arkansas than in any other state of the Deep South.

“We have had some few letters and telegrams saying we must let Negroes go to school. Well, here are pictures of the most modern schools in this city which had been constructed for members of the Negro race. They are much finer, ladies and gentlemen, and any of you can check. These schools are more modern with more modern facilities than the one at Central High where Negroes now seek to enroll with white students.”

— Gov. Faubus, television address,

Sept. 26, 1957

One of the great unsolved mysteries of the 1957 Little Rock Desegregation Crisis at Central High School is, “Why did it happen here?”

Most residents and observers of Arkansas's capital in the mid-1950s believed that school desegregation would proceed smoothly. Journalists and historians of more-recent times, in writing about what happened at Central, have agreed with that notion.

Situated outside the unabashedly racist Deep South, Little Rock was a “progressive” city that let blacks into its public libraries and onto city buses before the law required it. (A 1954 Associated Press article portrayed Georgia, Louisiana Mississippi and South Carolina as the states most likely “to evade the Supreme Court mandate.”)

When the segregationist White Citizens Council groups spread to Arkansas from neighboring Mississippi — and to Little Rock in the form of the Capital Citizens Council — they did not attract the large and influential backing provided elsewhere in the South.

Clearly, Little Rock was the last place anyone expected trouble with school desegregation.

Unfortunately, both contemporary and historical narratives failed to include the perspective of Little Rock's black population. Drinking from the same department store water fountain as white people — when you could not use the dressing room or restaurant in the same facility — did not qualify as racial “progress” to black people, especially when most venues around the city continued to be segregated.

Like many American cities, World War II profoundly affected Little Rock and its environs. The construction of an Air Force base in 1953 fueled a nearly 20 percent increase in population, giving Little Rock about 100,000 residents by the mid-1950s. Of that total, almost 30 percent was black and living in the east and southeast sections of the city, while 70 percent was white and living in the central and western parts. Not too surprisingly, as elsewhere in the United States, the population growth in Little Rock coupled with a post-war baby boom to stretch the physical facilities of the public school system to the limit.

The Little Rock School District was not only the state's largest school system, it also had the highest percentage of black students in an urban area. Despite being headquarters for the Arkansas State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, Little Rock did not have the most radical black population in the state; Pine Bluff held that distinction. Perhaps the more moderate leadership of Little Rock's black community and the School Board of this “progressive” city could make desegregation work smoothly. In any event, whatever was to happen in Little Rock would have a major impact on how the rest of the state implemented the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation.

Just as drinking from the same water fountains and borrowing books from the same library did not add up to racial equality, neither did integrating a handful of black students into three majority-white school districts in Arkansas. Those decisions were based on economic necessity rather than an understanding (or an apology) that segregation and unequal facilities were unfair.

More important, the strides that Arkansas supposedly had made toward desegregation all had occurred without any meaningful participation of black residents. The white power structure — local school boards and city councils, the state Board of Education, the governor, the state legislature, and even churches — continued to act unilaterally in what it undoubtedly considered to be “the best interest of Negroes,” without actually talking to them.

Although more people might have been speaking out about desegregation, the spring of 1956 was not a particularly optimistic time for black people in Arkansas. The top two likely candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor opposed school desegregation and the state Education Department recommended that districts equalize their black and white school facilities. On March 23, Commissioner of Education Arch Ford announced that most Arkansas school districts would plan separate-but-equal facilities for the 1956-57 academic year. Sixty-six of the 423 school districts in Arkansas requested an increase in millage. Most of the districts planned new construction (for Negroes) and a handful intended to use the money to raise Negro teacher salaries. Ford specifically instructed those districts planning to maintain segregation to bring the salaries of Negro teachers up to par with those of white teachers.

Little Rock appeared to be no exception. At a March meeting, the Little Rock School Board designated two new “Negro” schools for the next school year: Horace Mann High School (which would open officially a week later) and Pfeiffer Camp (to take overflow from Carver Elementary). The Rev. S.S. Taylor, associate editor of the Arkansas State Press, took offense. In a column titled “We Don't Like ‘Negro Schools',” Taylor wrote:

“The Negro believes that the only reason for calling a school “Negro” is to induce Negro children to stay in and white to stay out. The Negro parent whose children have to walk past one school to get to another and then not be permitted to study fundamental subjects in the school farther distant, is the original reason for the fight first for equality and finally for integration. If equality of facilities had been given a modicum of attention long ago, the question of integration would never have arisen.”

The Little Rock School District got the “separate” part right, but had a difficult time with “equal.” In March 1956, the School Board divided up the old library books at Dunbar High School between Horace Mann High School and Dunbar Junior High. (Dunbar closed as a high school at the end of the 1954-55 school year, but the junior high remained.) The board donated the books once used by the now-defunct Dunbar Junior College to Philander Smith College. When the board later approved a mandatory reading materials list for junior high school libraries, Dunbar needed more books than any of the white junior high schools just to meet the minimum requirements. Forest Heights Junior High School, a brand new school, needed the fewest because parents privately purchased books for the library.

At the School Board meeting in April 1956, Mrs. Ruth Klepper Settle, supervisor of vocal music, announced that the 12th annual Elementary Festival Chorus would take place in three days at Robinson Auditorium. No mention was made of a Negro Elementary Chorus. And the board voted in May to repair all of the band instruments at Dunbar High for $1,433.90 so they could be used at the new Horace Mann High School because Dunbar Junior High School did not have a band. Yet the board bought $8,432.99 worth of new musical instruments for Southwest Junior High School when it opened.

The list of inequities at Little Rock's “colored schools” went on and on. Dunbar's sports teams had no “official schedule” of games with neighboring schools but East Side, West Side, Pulaski Heights, Forest Heights and Southwest junior high schools played against each other as well as against Catholic High ninth-graders and two junior high schools in North Little Rock — Fourth Street and Jefferson Davis.

Little Rock's Negroes had no recourse: No one represented them on the School Board, nor did any black teachers or administrators attend School Board meetings. Even when the School Board tried to provide “equal” separate programs, the secondary inequalities of segregation showed through. In December 1956 board members learned the results of the state's practical nurse licensing examination. Even though both programs had an enrollment cap of 25 students per class, and each class spent four months in the classroom and eight months in the hospital, none of the white students failed the exam while six of the black students did, including two for at least the second time. The black students also had lower average test scores than the white students. Unfortunately, such results were to be expected when one stopped to consider the inferior school and hospital facilities where the Negro students took the bulk of their training.

What had to be even more frustrating for blacks was the way in which white Arkansans continued to congratulate themselves for being racially progressive. On Thursday, April 26, 1956, Citizens Coach Co. in Little Rock stopped segregating passengers based on race because of the mistaken notion that a new federal law banning segregation in intrastate travel required immediate compliance. White news sources proclaimed the end of Jim Crow and a front-page editorial in the Arkansas State Press lauded the action. However, in an article about the first day of open seating, State Press editor L.C. Bates observed that white people were doubling up in seats: “The reason was obvious. It would keep Negroes from sharing the same seat.”

A little more than a month later, L.C. Bates took Little Rock School District Superintendent Virgil T. Blossom to task for telling a meeting of the Sertoma Club that gradual school desegregation complied with the law, met the standards established by court decisions and would preserve good race relations. In his editorial Bates stated:

“… that speakers who speak of good ‘race relations' between the white and Negro, are just a little out of line in their interpretation. … What they really mean is ‘powerful non-resistant white domination.' The power to keep the Negro meek and humble, where he will not exert any action that is contrary to the white man's will.”

Bates also rebuked Blossom for saying he knew what the “colored race” wanted. If Blossom really knew what the Negro desired, Bates wrote, he would “know that the Negro is an American citizen, and wants to share in the privileges and opportunities guaranteed him under the federal constitution, and live his life as any other American citizen.”

Blossom was not the only person with the School District who professed to know what black Little Rock residents wanted. In developing strategy for the Aaron v. Cooper federal court case arising from the district's refusal to allow black students to transfer to all-white schools, Archibald House, lead attorney for the School Board, wanted to establish that the NAACP did not understand local conditions and that the School Board's desegregation plan was reasonable. Consequently, the School District's defense trial team deposed Little Rock NAACP Chapter President Rev. J.C. Crenchaw and Arkansas State Conference NAACP President Daisy Bates on May 4, 1956, in the federal courthouse in Little Rock, with U.S. District Judge John E. Miller presiding.

The defense desperately wanted to prove that the “total and immediate integration” of Little Rock public schools was unfeasible. Unfortunately, deposing Bates and Crenchaw did not accomplish this. Bates' testimony revealed that, despite the numerous times blacks had courtesy meetings with the School Board about desegregation, nothing of consequence resulted. And, when told, “There is no law that says integration will be immediate,” Rev. Crenchaw replied, “There is none that says it will be gradual either.”

To illustrate just how “progressive” Little Rock was at this time, defense lawyer Leon Catlett repeatedly referred to blacks in open court as “niggers” until Bates “reminded [him of] the correct pronunciation of the word Negro.” During her deposition, Bates also had instructed Catlett to address her as “Mrs. Bates” and not presume to call her “Daisy.” “That is something that is reserved for my intimate friends and my husband. This morning is the first time I ever saw you, you will refrain from calling me Daisy.”

Of course, relationships between whites and blacks of the opposite sex had always been difficult. Legions of light-skinned Negroes were born of enslaved women impregnated by their owners in the antebellum period and, later, as the result of “intimate” relationships between domestic servants and their male employers. Yet segregationists focused on miscegenation, or race-mixing, as one of the principal dangers of school desegregation. At least one current author (an Arkansas native) sees miscegenation as a major reason for the Little Rock desegregation crisis. L.C. Bates, however, refused at the time to tolerate such hypocrisy and commented: “The parson wanted to know the extent of the relationship between the Negro boys and the white girls. Evidently the relationship existing between the white male species and the Negro femmes is so well established, and has produced so many offsprings, that it needs no clarification.”

Over the past decade, natives of Little Rock have learned more about the desegregation crisis and the racism that helped fuel it from numerous sources: The Central High School National Historic Site; Sandra Hubbard's two documentaries, “The Giants Wore White Gloves” and “The Lost Year,” and numerous publications on the topic. Many people have re-examined their past only to learn they had been totally ignorant of the second-class citizenship of blacks at the time, evidenced in part by black-face cartoons or separate death notices in the local newspapers. However, the racism that hurt Little Rock and Arkansas the most in the 1950s, and continues to plague the city, is as invisible today as blacks were when the city, the state and the U.S. Department of Justice tried to solve the desegregation crisis without ever asking black patrons to participate in the deliberations, much less ask what they wanted.

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