Cooper v. Aaron

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Cooper v. Aaron (1958) was a case pitting thirty-three African American students from Little Rock, represented by the local branch of the NAACP, against the Little Rock School District which denied them access to local high schools despite federal court orders mandating school desegregation. The primary defendant in the case was local school board president William G. Cooper. Superintendent Virgil Blossom was also named as a co-defendant. The first plaintiff in the case, alphabetically, was John Aaron. The case was litigated against the school board by Wiley Branton for the Arkansas Legal Defense Fund beginning in 1955 and ending in 1958.

By a 9-0 vote the Supreme Court affirmed the desegregation order made explicit in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision of 1954. The next year the Court weakened its stand by permitting a more gradual, accommodationist approach in Brown v. Board of Education II ("all deliberate speed").

In August 1956 Federal District Judge John E. Miller ruled that Little Rock's minimal desegregation plan met the requirements of Brown II in the first phase of Cooper v. Aaron. This decision was upheld in federal appeals court in early 1957. These early successes emboldened Faubus to bar black students from entering Central High School in September 1957, and for the Little Rock School District to maintain the all-white status of Hall High School in Pulaski Heights.

The Little Rock School Board asked Judge Harry J. Lemley to delay integration for two and a half years in the spring of 1958. This delay is granted. The Legal Defense Fund immediately appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court as well as to the U.S. Supreme Court. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus contended that integration threatened to unhinge the community of Little Rock, and threatened to close Little Rock public schools in the fall of 1958 rather than see them integrated. Segregationist supporters hoped to defend Jim Crow laws and prevent integration by appealing to state's rights.

However, the Cooper case ultimately made clear that state legislatures could not overturn Supreme Court directives of their own accord. In a decision rendered on September 12, 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arkansas authorities had violated the U.S. Constitution. Faubus kept the school closed despite the injunction, and they remained closed until a special school board election took place in the spring of 1959.

The Cooper decision has been interpreted as the triumph of judicial social activism over gradualism and Southern defiance.


Tony A. Freyer, Little Rock on Trial: Cooper v. Aaron and School Desegregation (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007).

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