Little Rock Look Back: September 12, 1958–a day of educational chaos in Little Rock

Thurgood Marshall, of the NAACP, sits on the steps of the Supreme Court Building after he filed an appeal in the integration case of Little Rock’s Central High School. (AP Photo, file)

The Court found that “the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution” and all state officials must adhere to the Court’s decisions and follow the rules laid down in those decisions in similar future cases.

Following the decision, the Little Rock School Board issued a statement that the schools would open as planned on Monday, September 15, 1958.  One of the School Board members, Henry V. Rath, resigned his position on the board that day. He was frustrated that the School Board was caught between federal law and state law.

Later that afternoon, Governor Faubus signed several bills into law which had been passed in a special session. These bills were designed to make it more difficult to integrate public schools.  One of them gave the Governor the authority to temporarily close schools to keep them segregated.  The Governor would then call a special election for the voters in that district to decide whether to remain closed or be opened and integrated. (One of the other laws, which would come in to play later during the school year, laid out the plans for a recall of school board members.)

Shortly after signing the law which gave him the authority to close the schools, Governor Faubus did just that.  He announced that Little Rock’s four public high schools would not open on Monday, September 15.  He set October 7 as the date for the special election about keeping the schools closed.

No one seemed to know what the next steps were.

That night, high school football took place, as previously scheduled.  Central came from behind to defeat West Monroe, Louisiana, by a score of 20 to 14.

Over the weekend, there were many meetings and phone conversations as people were trying to figure out what to do.

One meeting that took place on September 12 was at the home of Mrs. Adolphine Fletcher Terry.  She invited a few friends over to discuss what role the women of the city could play in solving this crisis.  The group decided to meet on the following Tuesday, September 16, at Terry’s house.  It would eventually grow to over 1,300 members and have the name of Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Public Schools.

Little Rock Look Back: Thurgood Marshall confirmed to SCOTUS

On August 30, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Ten years earlier, Marshall had been spending much time in Little Rock as he fought for the Little Rock Nine to be allowed to integrate Little Rock Central High School.  While he was in town, he would stay at the home of L. C. and Daisy Bates.  One  can tour the home today and see the bedroom in which he, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, and other Civil Rights leaders stayed while visiting Little Rock.

His involvement with the Little Rock Nine came about from his role with the NAACP. In had been in that capacity that he was lead attorney for the Brown v. Board of Education decision which paved the way for the Little Rock schools to be integrated.  He worked with local attorneys such as Wiley Branton Sr. and Chris Mercer on the Little Rock efforts.

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy named Marshall to a seat on the US Court of Appeals. Unsurprisingly, a group of segregationist senators tried to hold up the appointment.  In 1965, he was named to the position of Solicitor General by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Regrettably there is another Arkansas connection to Thurgood Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court.  As he had with the 1961 appointment to the Court of Appeals, Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan vigorously opposed the nomination of Marshall.  As a member of the Judiciary Committee he tried to hold it up.  In the end, McClellan did not vote on Marshall’s appointment when it came before the full Senate.

The final vote was 69 for and 11 against with 20 not voting. Of the 11 former states of the Confederacy, Arkansas’ J. William Fulbright, Tennessee’s Howard Baker & Al Gore Sr., Texas’ John Tower & Ralph Yarborough, and Virginia’s William Spong were the only six votes for yes.  There were six who did not vote, and 10 Nay votes.

The remaining Nay vote came from West Virginia’s Robert Byrd. Among those outside the South who did not vote were future Democratic presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy,  Edmund Muskie and George McGovern as well as Republican former actor George Murphy.  Montana was the only state with neither senator casting a vote one way or the other.

Marshall served on the US Supreme Court until October 1991, when he retired due to failing health. He died in January 1993, just four days after Bill Clinton became president.