Little Rock Crisis
The 1957 Little Rock Desegregation Crisis is an international symbol of the twentieth-century American Civil Rights movement.
Desegregating Little Rock before 1957
The stage for the Little Rock Crisis was set by the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The Brown decision overturned the "separate but equal" provisions set up in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), leading to Jim Crow segregation in Little Rock and elsewhere in the American South. The response of the Little Rock School Board and the local chapter of the NAACP was to comply with the Brown decision as an act of "good faith," citing Little Rock's tradition of moderation where race is concerned. New Little Rock School Board superintendent Virgil Blossom gathered together school board members and local leaders in a meeting four days after the Brown decision is reached. Bloom argued that nothing could be done until the Supreme Court issued a ruling on implementation of desegregation, to the disappointment of many at the meeting including black Little Rock State Press news editor L. C. Bates. At a later meeting Bloom explained to the NAACP leaders that desegregation could not proceed until two new high school were built: Hall High School and Horace Mann High School. He pledged to begin desegregating all high schools in September 1957, with elementary schools desegregated beginning around 1960. These pronouncements come to be known as the Blossom Plan.
On May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court issued its implementation decision, which has come to be called Brown II. To the surprise and dismay of many the Court ruled ambiguously that integration must proceed "with all deliberate speed" rather than immediately, and puts district courts in charge of enforcement. Soon thereafter Blossom formulated a new plan to integrate only Central High School. Horace Mann was to open as a segregated black school, and Hall was to remain open to whites only. The NAACP voted in December 1955 to sue the school district in federal court. The NAACP suit, called Cooper v. Aaron, was filed on February 8, 1956. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus maintained that efforts to desegregate schools are most appropriately handled at the local level. State's rights activists resisted integration on the grounds of interposition: forced federal integration is considered both dangerous and unconstitutional.
In August 1956 Judge John E. Miller sided with the school district's plan in the case of Cooper v. Aaron, noting that the NAACP lawyer U. Simpson Tate had asked for immediate desegregation, while the school board plan followed the Supreme Court directive of "deliberate speed." The decision was appealed to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals where it is upheld again in the case of Aaron v. Cooper on April 29, 1957. The case was not appealed further, but the NAACP recommended that black students begin enrolling at Central High according to the provisions of the revised Blossom Plan for the fall semester. Segregationists in Little Rock complained that the effects of integration of Central High will fall hardest on working class and poor whites in the city as affluent all-white Hall High School will remain segregated.
On August 22, 1957, local segregationists invited Georgia governor Marvin Griffin to an interpositionist rally in Little Rock. Blossom, Faubus, and other school officials met to discuss a possible violent backlash if Central High is immediately desegregated.
The Crisis of 1957-1958
On September 2, 1957, Faubus announced in televised remarks that the Arkansas National Guard will be called out to prevent the integration of Central High, citing the high potential for violent demonstration. The immediate crisis is precipitated on September 4, 1957, as Governor Faubus and the National Guard barred the doors of Central High in order to to prevent nine black students from attending classes. Faubus stated that he remains convinced that "[b]lood will run in the streets" if the school is integrated. Student Elizabeth Eckford attempted to enter the school and is turned away.
On September 23, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered 1,000 federal troops into the capitol city to restore order and enforce a federal court order integrating Central High School. A segregationist mob forced local police to lead the students away in the middle of the day. Paratroopers drawn from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division began escorting nine black students, the Little Rock Nine, to the school doors on September 25, 1957.
On May 27, 1958, senior Ernest Green became the first African American graduate of Central High School.
In August 1958 the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a June 21, 1958, order of Judge Lemley, stemming from Cooper v. Aaron, in which the Little Rock School Board through its lawyer Richard C. Butler asked for a two-and-one-half year "cooling off period" before re-initiating the integration process. The Eighth Circuit agreed with the opinion of NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall who argued that the potential for unrest was "preferable to the complete breakdown of education which will result from teaching children that courts of law will bow to violence." The school board appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court reviewed the Cooper decision in a special session from August 25-September 29, 1958. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ordered on September 15th that desegregation proceed without delay.
1958-1959: The "Lost Year"
In response to the Supreme Court decision, Faubus closed all four high schools in Little Rock: Horace Mann, Central, Hall, and Technical. Faubus derived his authority from a proclamation of the General Assembly meeting two weeks prior to the issuance of the Court's decision. Faubus also called for a referendum on the issue of integration in Little Rock public schools.
In a September 27, 1958, referendum Little Rock residents voted 19,470 to 7,561 to keep all the public schools closed rather than accept integration of facilities. This prompted the formation or redoubling of efforts by a number of citizen's action organizations, including the Capital Citizens' Council, the Mother's League of Central High, and the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC). All members of the school board resigned except for segregationist Dale Alford. Blossom's contract as superintendent was bought out.
Although more than 3,600 black and white students were left without schools to attend, about ninety percent of the white students find other schools to attend inside and outside the district. Many white students began attending the hastily organized private T. J. Raney High School in October 1958. Little Rock teachers were left with empty classrooms. To pass the time they occasionally taught their subjects to each other. Fifteen teachers began instructing students and the public on television, but were ordered to stop after one week by a federal court.
In December 1958 school board elections the WEC successfully placed three moderates on the board: Ted Lamb, Russell Matson, and Everett Tucker Jr.. Segregationist candidates -- Robert Laster, Ed McKinley Jr., and Ben Rowland -- took the other three seats. On May 5, 1959, the moderate bloc on the board walked out after other board members attempt a purge of forty-four teachers and administrators with purported integrationist leanings. After the walkout all the teachers and Central High School principal Jess W. Matthews and vice principals J. O. Powell and Elizabeth Huckaby were summarily released at the board meeting. School district superintendent Terrell E. Powell was demoted.
The mass firing prompted male leadership in the city to form the group Stop This Outrageous Purge (STOP). The leader of STOP was Drew F. Agar. Segregationists formed the Committee to Retain Our Segregated Schools (CROSS) in response. Both groups asked for a recall election of current board members. Both sides were rewarded for their efforts in collecting signatures for recalls of each of the six board members. CROSS campaigned by hosting a rally led by Reverend M. L. Moser Jr. at the Hotel Marion. STOP responded with a rally honoring teachers at Robinson Auditorium. On May 22nd Orval Faubus broadcast his own thirty minute address favoring the segregationist side on all three local channels. Faubus emphasized the role of the "Cadillac brigade" living in the relatively unintegrated Country Club neighborhood of western Little Rock in bringing race-mixing to the rest of the population.
In the ensuing recall election of May 25, 1959, the three segregationist board members were removed and replaced by three moderates endorsed by both the WEC and STOP. Moderate Everett Tucker was retained by a vote of 13,317 to 12,093. Moderate Ted Lamb was retained by a vote of 12,944 to 12,513. Moderate R. H. Matson Jr. was retained by a vote of 12,971 to 12,320. Ed McKinley Jr. was removed by a vote of 13,340 to 11,860. R. W. Laster was removed by a vote of 13,996 to 11,235. Ben Rowland was removed by a vote of 13,692 to 11,527. The Pulaski County Board of Education named J. H. Cottrell Jr., B. Frank Mackey, and H. L. Hubbard as replacements for the three removed board members. (W. C. McDonald soon replaced the ineligible Hubbard.) The board reconvened on June 15 and promoted Powell back to the post of superintendent.
Three days later, on June 18, a panel of three federal judges ruled that Act 4 authorizing the Arkansas governor to close public schools to avoid integration was unconstitutional. The school board announced that same day their intent to reopen the Little Rock schools for the fall semester. On August 12 the schools reopened with three black students at Central High School and three black students at Hall High School.
Aftermath and ongoing struggle
The Little Rock Crisis is widely acknowledged as a harbinger of economic hardship and population loss for the city. No major industries entered the local marketplace until the arrival of agricultural and swimming pool pump manufacturer Jacuzzi Brothers in the early 1960s.
Black leaders under Worth Long demanded the desegregation of public and commercial spaces in the city of Little Rock in 1962. Long first met with the Little Rock City Council, and then took his demands to the local Retail Merchant's Association (RMA). The RMA responded by asking the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce to respond to Long's complaints. Chamber member Will Mitchell remembered that at the time "civic leaders did not want the City Board to take any action, for such negotiation might get them into election difficulties."
In October 1962 Bill Hansen announced an imminent sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter on Main Street. Little Rock Unlimited Progress director Willard A. Hawkins, faced with ongoing protests, announced that the Chamber of Commerce was creating a special Downtown Negotiating Committee to address the problem. Worthen Bank president James Penick agreed to serve as the chair of this negotiating committee. The committee agreed that downtown businesses must desegregate by January 1, 1963. Apparently unaware of the decision or the deadline or concerned about the strength of promises made, local students launched a sit-in at lunch counters on December 1, 1963. Lunch counters were desegregated on January 1, 1963. Main Street motion picture theaters were desegregated on June 1, 1963. Thirty-eight restaurants desegregated on September 1, 1963; six restaurant owners refused the order.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which threatened to cut federal funding for schools that refused to make legitimate efforts to desegregate led to a rapid waning of resistance to integration in Little Rock schools. Between 1964 and 1965 the number of African American students in local integrated schools climbed from 213 to 621. By the 1967-1968 school year Central High had enrolled 415 black students, Metropolitan Vocational School had 142, and Hall High School had five. Full integration of the Little Rock public school system was declared in 2009, but as a practical matter the schools remain effectively segregated as white students attend private schools in Pulaski County and as families move to more white suburban and exurban school districts.
In an informal survey, members of the Arkansas Historical Association named the Little Rock Crisis the most significant historical event of the twentieth century.
- Karen Anderson, "The Little Rock School Desegregation Crisis: Moderation and Social Conflict," Journal of Southern History 70.3 (August 2004): 603-637.
- Tony A. Freyer, Little Rock on Trial: Cooper v. Aaron and School Desegregation, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007).
- Elizabeth Jacoway and C. Fred Williams, eds., Understanding the Little Rock Crisis: An Exercise in Remembrance and Reconciliation (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1999).
- David L. Kirp, "Retreat into Legalism: The Little Rock School Desegregation Case in Historic Perspective," PS, Political Science & Politics 30.3 (September 1997): 443-448.
- John Krupa, "Teachers' Firings, Vote on Board Turned Tide," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette," May 24, 2009.
- Jake Sandlin, "50 Years Ago, High Schools Close to Block Integration," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 14, 2008.
- Irving J. Spitzberg, Jr., Racial Politics in Little Rock: 1954-1964 (New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1987).
- Shelby Steele, "The Legacy of Little Rock," Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2007.