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.

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Little Rock Look Back: Brown v. Board II Decision from the US Supreme Court

On May 31, 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka II.  

One year after the landmark Brown v. Board decision which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional, the Supreme Court took up the case again.  This time the focus was on the implementation of desegregation

The original Brown v. Board grew out of a class action suit filed in Topeka, Kansas, by thirteen African American parents on behalf of their children.  The District Court had ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing Plessy v. Ferguson.  When it was appealed to the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board was combined with four other cases from other jurisdictions.

After handing down the 1954 decision, the Supreme Court planned to hear arguments during the following court session regarding the implementation.  Because the Brown v. Board case was actually a compilation of several cases from different parts of the US, the Supreme Court was faced with crafting a ruling which would apply to a variety of situations.

In the arguments before the court in April 1955, the NAACP argued for immediate desegregation while the states argued for delays.

The unanimous decision, authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, employed the now-famous (or infamous?) phrase that the states should desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”

In making the ruling, the US Supreme Court shifted the decision-making to local school districts and lower-level federal courts. The rationale was that those entities closest to the unique situation of each locality would be best equipped to handle the distinct needs of those schools and communities.

The Supreme Court did make it clear that all school systems must immediately starting moving toward racial desegregation.   But again failed to provide any guideposts as to what that meant.

In anticipation of the Supreme Court’s Brown II ruling, earlier in May the Little Rock School Board had adopted a draft of what became known as the “Blossom Plan” (named for the superintendent, Virgil Blossom).  The thought process seems to have been that if the LRSD had a plan in place prior to a Supreme Court decision, it might buy it more time had the court ruled that things had to happen immediately.

The Blossom Plan called for phased integration to start at the senior high level.  It anticipated the new Hall High School as having an attendance zone in addition to zones for Central and Mann high schools. But the way the zones were created, the only school which would be integrated at first would be Central High.  The junior highs and elementary schools would be integrated later.

With no immediate remedy from the US Supreme Court, the NAACP – both nationally and locally – had little recourse other than expressing their unhappiness continuing to verbally protest the lack of immediate desegregation. (This is an oversimplification of the NAACP efforts, but points out that there options were very limited.)

Little Rock Look Back: First Hall High Graduation in 1958

Another historic high school graduation took place on May 28, 1958.  It was the first graduation ceremony for Little Rock Hall High School.

The school opened in September 1957 as Little Rock’s newest high school, located in “west” Little Rock.  (It is sometimes listed as the second Little Rock high school, ignoring the fact that Horace Mann high school existed.)

The first graduating class was smaller than future classes would be.  Because they had attended Central High School for their sophomore and junior years, many seniors who were zoned for Hall High chose to attend Central for their senior year.

Instead of processing in to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Hall High seniors entered to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles.”  The music for ceremony also included “The Star Spangled Banner,” Scarmolin’s “My Creed” and Handel’s “Sarabande and Bouree.”

Principal Terrell E. Powell (who would be tapped as superintendent of the district in a few months) presided over the ceremonies.  Superintendent Virgil Blossom (whose daughter had graduated from Central High the day before) spoke briefly to introduce the School Board members.  One of them, R. A. Lile, presented the students with their diplomas.

There were 109 seniors listed in the graduation program, seven were honor graduates.  The senior class officers were: Redding Stevenson, president; Amanda Jeanne “Toppy” Cameron, vice president; and Karl E. Stahlkopf, secretary. Porter Briggs was the first student body president. Linda Overstreet was student body vice president and Linda Neathery was 12th grade representative on the student council.

The Senior speakers were:  Anita Kluglose (“Toward a Pathless Wood”), Karl Stahlkopf (“Toward the Mysterious Stars”), Linda Neathery (“Toward Majestic Mountains”) and Thomas York (“Toward Unlimited Horizons”).  Other students participating were Redding Stevenson presenting the senior gift, Mary Ellen Lenggenhager giving the invocation, and Michael Ebert giving the benediction.

Little Rock Look Back: End near for 1959 School Board Recall Election

May 23, 1959, was a Saturday. It was also two days before the School Board recall election.  With it being a Saturday, it was the last full day for door knocking as supporters for all sides were busy trying to get out the vote.

Both sides were confident of victory.  Before a crowd of 1,000 in MacArthur Park, segregationists Rep. Dale Alford and Mississippi congressman John Bell Williams berated Harry Ashmore and the Arkansas Gazette.

STOP chair Dr. Drew Agar and campaign chair William Mitchell predicted it would be the largest turnout in Little Rock school election history.  They also stated that Gov. Faubus’ TV appearance criticizing STOP had actually pushed people over to their side.

Echoing Agar and Mitchell, the Pulaski County Election Commission predicted 30,000 of the district’s 42,000 registered voters would cast ballots.  The previous record of 27,000 had been cast in September 1958 when voters decided to keep the high schools closed.  By contrast, 14,300 voted in the December 1958 election which had selected the six school board members now on the ballot for recall.  On May 22, the final day of absentee ballot voting, 205 absentee votes had been cast bringing it to a total of 455 absentee ballots.

William S. Mitchell, who in addition to being a renowned attorney, apparently had a wicked sense of humor.  He used CROSS’s name against them in ads (placed throughout the newspaper) which urged voters to “Cross” out the names of the three candidates being backed by CROSS.

Little Rock Look Back: CROSS formed to Stop STOP

On May 16, 1959, a new organization emerged in an effort to keep Little Rock schools segregated.

The Committee to Retain Our Segregated Schools (CROSS) was launched by Rev. M. L. Moser, Jr., the pastor of Central Baptist Church.  The three leading segregationist organizations in Little Rock disavowed any connection to it.  Representatives from the Capitol Citizens Council, Central High Mother’s League and States Rights Council noted that he was not affiliated with them.

Approximately 300 people attended the CROSS kick off event at the Hotel Marion.   Joining Rev. Moser as a speaker at the rally was LRSD School Board President Ed McKinley.  It was announced that the CROSS office would be at 108 Scott Street.  Robert D. Lee was the campaign treasurer.

With STOP advocating for the removal of McKinley, Ben Rowland and Robert Laster from the school board, CROSS was now out to recall Everett Tucker, Ted Lamb and Russell Matson.

With the election on May 25, the final nine days were going to be intense.

 

Little Rock Look Back: Date set for 1959 Recall Election

On May 15, 1959, the Pulaski County Election Commission met to discuss the competing efforts to recall members of the Little Rock School Board.

The day prior, the Pulaski County Clerk had certified that petitions had enough valid signatures to have an election about recalling School Board members Ed McKinley, Robert Laster and Ben Rowland. There were also enough valid signatures to put before voters the recall of Ted Lamb, Everett Tucker and Russell Matson.

Because all of the school board members were to be on the ballot, the Election body decided to list them each alphabetically.  For each person there would be the question as to whether he should be recalled and voters would indicate “yes” or “no.”

The date of May 25, 1959, was set for the election.

It would be open to anyone with a valid 1958 poll tax receipt.  Voters must also live within the Little Rock School District boundaries (which were not coterminous with the city limits). They must have been residents of Arkansas for a year by election day, residents of Pulaski County for six months, and resided within their precinct for 30 days.

Meanwhile supporters of both trios were hard at work.  STOP had been in existence for a week to promote the efforts to recall the segregationist faction of the school board.  While the Central High Mothers League and Capitol Citizens Council had been working to recall the other three members of the school board, rumors were swirling about the emergence of a new organization which sought to fight for segregation.

Little Rock Look Back: STOP announced to end Teacher Purge

Following the success of meetings at Forest Park Elementary and the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, as well as other school, PTA, and civic meetings, the effort was underway to recall the three segregationist members of the Little Rock School Board.

On May 7, 1959, at Brier’s Restaurant, a group of young civic leaders gathered as they often did. This time, their conversation focused on how to capitalize on the momentum mounting in the desire to recall the three segregationist School Board members.  Attorneys Edward Lester, Robert Shults, and Maurice Mitchell were present as well as Gene Fretz, a Gazette editor.  It was he who came up with the acronym STOP – Stop This Outrageous Purge.

That afternoon, the group reconvened at the Grady Manning Hotel.  This time joined by esteemed attorney Will Mitchell.  Among the other men who were instrumental in getting STOP started were attorney Henry Woods, attorney W. P. Hamilton Jr., and banker B. Finley Vinson.  As chair of the Chamber of Commerce, Grainger Williams had been a vocal supporter of the efforts to reopen the school.  His leadership was, no doubt, instrumental in the Chamber’s quick and vocal support for the fired LRSD personnel.

Dr. Drew Agar was chosen to be the chair of STOP.  The father of three children at Forest Park Elementary School, he was vice president of the Forest Park PTA.  It was he who had presided over the successful Forest Park PTA meeting which saw several hundred parents oppose the firing and endorse the recall of the three segregationist members. (Dr. Agar had to use some fancy footing to get the items added to the agenda at the last minute, but with creative parliamentary maneuvering, he succeeded.)

On May 8, 1959, STOP was publicly announced.  The event took place at Union National Bank.  Approximately 179 men were in attendance.  Those present were asked to contribute or solicit $100.  (In time, approximately $36,000 would be raised.)

In addition to Dr. Agar serving as chair, Maurice Mitchell served as finance chair, Will Mitchell and Henry Woods were political strategists behind the campaign.  Many other men stepped up.  Dr. Agar announced at the May 8 meeting that a STOP office would open in room 1010 of the Pyramid Life building on May 9.  It was to be open between 9am and 5pm to accept donations and to to collect recall petitions.

At the meeting standing ovations were given to R. A. Lile, a former member of the Little Rock School Board, and Everett Tucker, Ted Lamb and Russell Matson, current members.  (Remember, this was back in the day when standing ovations were few and far between.)

Because most of the STOP members were younger, and second-tier business executives, the leadership of Will Mitchell and the chamber’s leadership by Grainger Williams was crucial in giving not only sage advice, but adding gravitas.

In the coming weeks, STOP would work closely with the Women’s Emergency Committee. The WEC had studied voter registration lists. They would put this skill to use as potential voters were identified as “Saints,” “Sinners,” or “Savables.”  The two groups, working hand in hand behind the scenes, had their work cut out for them.

When the issue about reopening the schools had been put to the voters the previous autumn, Little Rock voters had overwhelmingly approved keeping the schools closed.  There were many factors which had led to it – confusing ballot title, short campaign time, belief that the schools would reopen soon, etc.  But even though there were some key factors in favor of STOP and the WEC this time, nothing could be taken for granted.