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.

During the year between Brown I and Brown II, racists and segregationists organized new groups and influenced existing ones to promote their agenda. East Arkansas legislators shepherded a bill aimed at keeping black children out of white schools through the state House of Representatives during the 1955 Arkansas General Assembly. But black organizations succeeded in persuading enough white state senators to amend the bill, effectively delaying its implementation for two years, which would be after Brown II.

Also in 1955, “White America, Inc.” the first organization in Arkansas dedicated to preserving segregation, formed in Pine Bluff “to promote, sponsor, foster and encourage the continued segregation of the Negro and white races by every lawful means whatsoever.” Even though such segregationist groups (which later merged with Citizens Councils) never proved as popular in Arkansas as they did in the Deep South, their threat of trouble helped trigger the Central High crisis.

On May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court issued Brown II, the implementation decision, which directed school districts to desegregate “on a racially non-discriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.” The ruling devastated Brown I enthusiasts because it set no hard and fast deadlines for public school boards to begin planning for, much less achieve, any level of desegregation. Segregationists were elated.

Thoughts of “minimal compliance” with Brown I gave way to “no compliance” with Brown II, especially in central and east Arkansas, and gave rise to massive resistance. Racists and segregationists hoped that actively challenging desegregation through protests and in the courts would result in overturning Brown.

The small town of Hoxie in northeast Arkansas caught some of the segregationist backlash. Just before its split-term semester began July 11, 1955, the School Board decided to move forward with desegregation rather than hide behind Brown II. Twenty-one black children began attending classes with approximately 800 white children. Desegregation proceeded so smoothly that the July 25 edition of Life magazine published a photo essay titled “A ‘Morally Right' Decision,” which included photographs of black and white students working and playing together.

The national publicity irritated White America, Inc. as well as the budding White Citizens Council of Arkansas. Their leaders began to work closely with a local citizens committee in Hoxie to try to end integration. The Hoxie School Board held firm, however, going all the way to federal court to bar further interference from the Hoxie Committee for Segregation, the White Citizens Council of Arkansas and White America, Inc.

Faubus publicly steered clear of Hoxie, but he was paying attention. The governor realized that segregationist leaders such as Jim Johnson of the White Citizens Council and Amis Guthridge of the Little Rock chapter of White America, Inc. could pose a political threat. Johnson, a former state senator from Crossett and unsuccessful candidate for attorney general, saw in Hoxie an opportunity to hold Faubus personally accountable for desegregating schools and destroying the southern way of life. A handsome, gregarious World War II veteran and lawyer, Johnson was a skilled orator who knew his time and his political platform had come.

In Little Rock, the Brown II ruling led to an abrupt change in Superintendent Blossom's unofficial school desegregation plan. Placing an all-black teaching staff at Horace Mann made it the “segregated” high school. White students (but not black students) could apply for “exceptions” to school-attendance zones. As it turned out, Mann would be black, Hall High School would be white, and Central High School would become the focus of desegregation. L.C. Bates called Blossom's proposal “vague, indefinite, slow-moving and indicative of an intent to stall further on school desegregation.” Working-class whites complained that the plan favored Little Rock's elite, whose children would attend newly completed Hall.

Weary of waiting for change, 27 black students turned up at four white Little Rock public schools (two high schools, one junior high and an elementary school) on Jan. 23, 1956, and requested transfers for the spring semester. Blossom denied the requests but the students' actions initiated Aaron v. Cooper, a federal court lawsuit in which their parents (represented by Wiley Branton) challenged the School District to let black students into white schools immediately.

U.S. District Judge John E. Miller dismissed the suit Aug. 28, 1956, stating that the Little Rock School Board's gradual desegregation plan would “lead to an effective and gradual adjustment of the problem.” Miller also ruled that the court would retain jurisdiction over the case in the event that “further orders … may be necessary to obtain the effectuation of the plan.” The parents' lawyers appealed, but the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld Miller. Branton saw a silver lining, however, saying: “The courts have given us a cloak of protection against some die-hard, anti-integration groups who might still try to delay integration.”

The “cloak of protection” was the federal court retaining jurisdiction in the case.

Meantime, 1956 was a gubernatorial and presidential election year. What with Hoxie, Jim Johnson, Faubus' reputation as a liberal, and the failure of pro-segregation measures in the 1955 legislative session, desegregation would be the major issue at the state level. Faubus had to harden his stance if he wanted to be re-elected.

In January, the governor told The New York Times that “85 percent of Arkansas residents were opposed to racial integration in the public schools,” adding that he “cannot be a party to any attempt to force acceptance of a change to which the people are so overwhelmingly opposed.” In the spring, Faubus appointed five residents of southeast Arkansas to a committee charged with examining how the state of Virginia planned to resist the Brown decision in order to develop a plan for Arkansas's resistance. Those tactics, along with distancing himself from black communities, helped Faubus win a second term.

Re-election freed Faubus to work with the state legislature to help school districts stay segregated. In February 1957, the Arkansas General Assembly passed four bills designed to maintain segregation in public schools. The measures (1) created a State Sovereignty Commission with investigative powers, (2) required individuals and organizations working for integration to register and provide reports of their actions, (3) relieved students of compulsory attendance in desegregated schools and (4) authorized school districts to hire legal counsel to defend school board members and officials. The legislation followed closely on Arkansas voter approval of a constitutional amendment in the November 1956 general election that supported giving the state, through interposition and nullification, the means of skirting the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to desegregate public schools.

Segregationists argued that the Supreme Court lacked the authority to compel local school districts to integrate because, they argued, the high court's decision affected only the Brown I litigants. Congress would have to pass a law to the same effect for the court's decision to apply nationally, they maintained, meaning the governor could “interpose” the state's sovereign power between the federal government and its citizens to prevent implementation of Brown. While interposition lacked authority under constitutional law, many people believed the doctrine could negate or delay the Supreme Court's ruling.

The Mothers League of Central High School formed Aug. 22, 1957, and announced its intention to prevent integration at Central. Closely aligned with the Capital Citizens Council (a branch of the White Citizens Council), the Mothers League provided a vehicle for segregationists to align their cause with “motherhood.” On Aug. 27, the League's recording secretary, Mary (Mrs. Clyde) Thomason, filed a petition seeking a temporary injunction against school desegregation. Pulaski County Chancellor Murray Reed granted the request but his ruling was nullified in federal court by U.S. District Judge Ronald Davies, who ordered the School Board to proceed with its integration plans.

The conflict reached crisis proportions when Faubus, citing the potential for violence, called out the Arkansas National Guard to preserve the peace by preventing nine black students who had registered to attend Central High from entering the school. In a televised address Sept. 2, Faubus reported that gun and knife sales had risen dramatically in Little Rock (though providing no proof) and that he had received threats of impending violence at Central. The governor's actions astounded many Little Rock residents. Most white residents opposed integration, but they had resigned themselves to complying with the Supreme Court. (Foreshadowing later events, Faubus noted “the possibility that this action could develop into a test of authority on any unwilling people.”)

In light of Faubus' actions, Little Rock school officials asked the nine black students not to come to Central on Sept. 4. Concurrently, however, Judge Davies ordered the School Board to continue with its desegregation plan. The nine students attempted to enter Central that day, but were turned away by the National Guard. Faubus sent a telegram the next day, Sept. 5, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in which he explained his position and asked for the president's cooperation. The telegram stated:

“The situation in Little Rock ... grows more explosive by the hour. This is caused ... by a federal judge who decreed ‘immediate' integration … without hearing any evidence whatsoever as to the conditions now existing in this community.”

On Sept. 20, Judge Davies ordered Faubus to stop preventing the nine black students from entering Central High School. The judge said the Guard could remain at the school to control the crowd, but only if it protected the black students, too. To make his point about violence, Faubus withdrew the Guard and left the Little Rock Police Department to deal with the situation on the following Monday. On that Monday morning, Sept. 23, the police succeeded in getting the “Little Rock Nine” through a side door at Central but could not manage an increasingly unruly mob. The police removed the students from the school about noon.

President Eisenhower issued a cease-and-desist order to the people of Little Rock, giving them one more chance to obey the Supreme Court and the Constitution. After rabble-rousers showed up at Central the next day, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne from Fort Campbell, Ky., to Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. On the morning of Sept. 25, under federal troop escort, the nine black students entered Central High School. A military presence remained at Central for the duration of the school year.

In January 1958, the Little Rock School Board, citing the turmoil of the previous fall, petitioned the federal court to delay implementation of its desegregation plan. U.S. District Judge Harry J. Lemley granted the request, but the Eighth Circuit and, subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Lemley. Faubus, acting under the authority of recent state legislation, ordered Little Rock's four high schools (Central, Hall, Horace Mann and Metropolitan Technical High School) closed for the 1958-59 school year pending a public vote for or against immediate integration. Little Rock voters came out nearly three to one against integration and the schools remained closed.

In May 1959, three segregationist School Board members attempted to fire 44 teachers and administrators, whom they accused of being “integrationists.” Led by the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC), an organization of white women dedicated to preserving public education, a group of male business and civic leaders established Stop This Outrageous Purge (STOP) and rallied to reinstate the affected faculty and staff. STOP and WEC succeeded in removing the three segregationist board members and the Pulaski County Election Commission replaced them with three “moderate” members. The School Board reopened the schools in the fall of 1959, while continuing with its desegregation plan.

Over the next decade, the Little Rock School Board continued with gradual desegregation. Citing the state's Pupil Placement Law, which established 16 criteria for accepting transfer students to previously all-white schools, the School Board limited the number of black students attending classes with whites to a minimum. The transfer criteria included space, faculty, transportation, as well as the academic ability and psychological stability of the black students and the effect on established programs. The federal courts subsequently ordered the board to devise a more-objective procedure for assigning students.

In 1965, the Little Rock School Board abandoned the state student-assignment law in favor of a freedom-of-choice plan. Students entering the first grade, junior high or senior high could state a preference to attend the school of their choice. This plan also failed to achieve substantial desegregation. In 1966, black parents sued the School District (Clark v. Board of Education) arguing that their children were denied the opportunity to enroll in white schools. This case remained active in both the federal district court and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with a number of decisions handed down in the ensuing 15 years.

(Editor's note: Johanna Miller Lewis is professor of history and coordinator of the graduate program in public history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. A product of desegregated schools in Baltimore, her interest in Little Rock's civil rights history began in 1994 with the National Dunbar History Project to document the history of the first segregated school in Arkansas to receive accreditation. After the Dunbar project, Lewis began serving on a community-planning group to create a small museum and visitor's center in a Magnolia service station across the street from Central High School. After the Center opened in time for the 40th anniversary of the Desegregation Crisis in Little Rock, Lewis became project manager for the Central High Museum, Inc. board of directors. When the Center became a unit of the National Park Service, Central High School National Historic Site contracted with Lewis to conduct an oral history of the Desegregation Crisis and to write the historic resource study for the site. She assisted in the exhibits in the new visitor center that will open officially Sept. 24.


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