Little Rock Look Back: School Board Election of 1958

The regularly scheduled Little Rock School Board election of 1958 took place on Saturday, December 6 of that year.  While other school boards throughout the state generally had just their regular two positions on the ballot that day, Little Rock had a unique situation with all six seats being open.

In November, five of the members of the school board resigned out of frustration. They were caught between federal court orders compelling integration at the high school level and state laws which openly forbade it (and allowed for the closing of the high schools to keep them segregated).

The one remaining member was leaving office in December because he was about to take a seat in Congress.  Dr. Dale Alford had unseated incumbent Brooks Hays by running as a write in candidate in the general election.

Grainger Williams of the Chamber of Commerce worked with Adolphine Fletcher Terry and the Women’s Emergency Committee to recruit candidates to run for the six seats. They sought people who would work to reopen the schools.  The five who resigned had done so a mere two days prior to the filing deadline.  The “business-civic” slate which filed for the six seats were Ted Lamb, Billy Rector, Everett Tucker, Russell Matson, Margaret Stephens and Ed McKinley.  The latter was seeking Alford’s seat and was the only one unopposed.

There were a total of thirteen candidates who filed for the six seats.  On November 30, the pro-segregationist Capital Citizens’ Council endorsed Ed McKinley, Pauline Woodson, Ben D. Rowland Sr., Margaret Morrison, C. C. Railey, and R. W. Laster.  An offshoot of the CCC, the State’s Rights Council offered its own endorsements including George P. Branscum, who had once been a CCC officer.

In what the GAZETTE called “Little Rock’s Strangest School Board Election,” voters chose Laster, McKinley, and Rowland from the CCC-backed list and Lamb, Tucker, and Matson.  The latter three had been labeled by Gov. Faubus as “integrationists.”

Many of the races were close.  Laster won when the results from the final precinct were counted.  Losing candidates on both sides of the issue challenged the results.  Mrs. Stephens had lost to Laster by 81 one votes.  Rector paid for her race and his to be recounted.  The recount took two days with seven 4-man teams doing the work by hand.  But the results stood.

There were approximately 42,500 voters in the district.  The election drew 14,300 voters. That was double the usual 7,000 voters who participated in school board elections.

Though disappointed that only three of their candidates had won, members of the WEC and their allies took comfort in the fact they had elected three moderates to the School Board less than three months after the group was founded.

An evenly divided School Board was set to take office later in the month.  But the odd elections during the 1958-59 school year involving the Little Rock School District were far from over.

 

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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: 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.