Little Rock Look Back: Little Rock Nine enter Central High for First Full Day

After legal challenges, stymied attempts, and literally countless threats, it was on Wednesday, September 25, 1957, that the group of African American students known as the Little Rock Nine actually entered Little Rock Central High School for a full day.  They would return each day through the end of the school year.

Unlike September 23, when they went in a side door before being hustled a few hours later for their own protection, on September 25 they walked in the front door.  They did so escorted by members of the 101st Airborne who had been ordered to Little Rock by President Eisenhower.

Much has been written about the events of September 25, 1957.  Several of the participants that day have penned memoirs.

Whatever I would write today would pale in comparison to the accounts of those who lived it.

So I just end this with words of gratitude to:

  • Melba Pattillo Beals
  • Elizabeth Eckford
  • Ernest Green
  • Gloria Ray Karlmark
  • Carlotta Walls LaNier
  • Terrence Roberts
  • Jefferson Thomas
  • Minnijean Brown Trickey
  • Thelma Mothershed Wair

Thank you to these nine pioneers, who were simply teenagers trying to have equal education opportunities.  Thank you to their parents, their families, their pastors, their legal team, their support system.  Thank you to Daisy and L. C. Bates, Wiley Branton Sr. Chris Mercer, and Thurgood Marshall for the roles they played.

While Jefferson Thomas passed away in 2010, the other eight continue to tell their stories and speak truth to audiences ranging from one to thousands and ages from pre-school to seniors.

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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: 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.

Little Rock Look Back: US Supreme Court hands down BROWN v BOARD decision

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.  

This landmark United States Supreme Court case declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The decision overturned 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which allowed state-sponsored segregation in public education. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Warren Court stated “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  The results of this decision would be tested on the streets of Little Rock in 1957.

The Court’s fourteen page decision did not spell out any sort of method for ending racial segregation in schools, and the Court’s second decision in Brown II, muddied the waters even further by only ordering states to desegregate with the oxymoronic “all deliberate speed.”

Brown v. Board grew out of a class action suit filed in Topeka, Kansas, by thirteen African American parents on behalf of their children.  Mr. Oliver Brown was the only male. He was chosen to be the lead plaintiff, because it was felt that the court would look more favorably on a male plaintiff.  The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing Plessy v. Ferguson.  The court did note that segregation had a detrimental effect on African American students, but that since the Topeka schools were substantially equal, there was no relief to be granted.

When it was appealed to the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board was combined with four other cases from other jurisdictions.  All were NAACP sponsored cases.  Thurgood Marshall was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.  In December 1952, the Justice Department filed a “friend of the court” brief and argued, in part, that racial segregation had a detrimental effect on US foreign policy. Communist countries were using racial separation in anti-US propaganda.

In the spring of 1953, the Supreme Court held the case.  Unable to decide the issue, they reheard it in the fall of 1953.  They then put special emphasis on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

During deliberations, Chief Justice Earl Warren insisted on a unanimous ruling to avoid massive Southern resistance.

Since the Topeka schools were found to be substantially equal, the Court’s ruling was important in noting that the harm came from the separation.  While there was no doubt that many (if not most) African American public schools were inferior in infrastructure and supplies to white schools – that in and of itself was not the issue.

School leaders in Little Rock started perusing the Brown decision and considering how the Little Rock School District would comply.

Little Rock Look Back: US Supreme Court announces Cooper v. Aaron decision

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. The students are, from left: Melba Pattillo, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray, escort Daisy Bates, Marshall, Carlotta Walls, Minnijean Brown, and Elizabeth Eckford. (AP Photo, file)

On September 29, 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Cooper v. Aaron. That decision held that Little Rock public officials were required to implement a desegregation plan in compliance with the Brown v. Board decision.

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.

The genesis for the Cooper v. Aaron court case was the Little Rock School Board seeking a delay in further implementation of the plan to integrate schools.

After the events of 1957-1958, the School Board was reluctant to have another year of integration, even if it were severely limited. The school board caved to this political pressure, filing a request for a two-and-a-half-year delay in implementing desegregation. The district court granted the request, but the court of appeals reversed. Chief Justice Earl Warren called a Special Term of the Supreme Court into session to consider the case. The stage was set for Cooper v. Aaron.

In their decision, the Warren Court made it clear that resistance to Brown would not be tolerated. The Court went on to state that “the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the Constitution” and “the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment enunciated by this Court in the Brown case is the supreme law of the land.”

Little Rock Look Back: Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.  

This landmark United States Supreme Court case declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The decision overturned 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which allowed state-sponsored segregation in public education. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Warren Court stated “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  The results of this decision would be tested on the streets of Little Rock in 1957.Th

The Court’s fourteen page decision did not spell out any sort of method for ending racial segregation in schools, and the Court’s second decision in Brown II, muddied the waters even further by only ordering states to desegregate with the oxymoronic “all deliberate speed.”

Brown v. Board grew out of a class action suit filed in Topeka, Kansas, by thirteen African American parents on behalf of their children.  Mr. Oliver Brown was the only male. He was chosen to be the lead plaintiff, because it was felt that the court would look more favorably on a male plaintiff.  The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing Plessy v. Ferguson.  The court did note that segregation had a detrimental effect on African American students, but that since the Topeka schools were substantially equal, there was no relief to be granted.

When it was appealed to the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board was combined with four other cases from other jurisdictions.  All were NAACP sponsored cases.  Thurgood Marshall was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.  In December 1952, the Justice Department filed a “friend of the court” brief and argued, in part, that racial segregation had a detrimental effect on US foreign policy. Communist countries were using racial separation in anti-US propaganda.

In the spring of 1953, the Supreme Court held the case.  Unable to decide the issue, they reheard it in the fall of 1953.  They then put special emphasis on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

During deliberations, Chief Justice Earl Warren insisted on a unanimous ruling to avoid massive Southern resistance.

Since the Topeka schools were found to be substantially equal, the Court’s ruling was important in noting that the harm came from the separation.  While there was no doubt that many (if not most) African American public schools were inferior in infrastructure and supplies to white schools – that in and of itself was not the issue.

School leaders in Little Rock started perusing the Brown decision and considering how the Little Rock School District would comply.

 

Women’s History Month – Sue Cowan Williams

Sue Cowan Williams was an educator who fought for fair treatment.

After being educated in Alabama and Illinois, she returned to Arkansas, and began her teaching career in 1935 at Dunbar High School in Little Rock.  In 1942, Williams became the plaintiff in a lawsuit aimed at equalizing the salaries of black and white teachers in the Little Rock School District. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, including its director-counsel Thurgood Marshall, assisted in the case. The trial ended after a week with a verdict against Williams, and her teaching contract was not renewed for the 1942-43 school year. Other black educators left the school as a result of their involvement in the lawsuit.

In 1945, Williams successfully appealed the verdict to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeal in St. Louis, which ordered equal pay for black and white teachers in Little Rock. Dr. Christophe, the new principal of Dunbar High School, demanded Williams’s reinstatement in the fall of the same year, but it was not granted until 1952. In the intervening years, she taught classes at what is now UAPB and Arkansas Baptist College as well as at the Ordnance Plant in Jacksonville.  Upon returning to the LRSD, Williams taught at Dunbar until 1974, when she retired. She died in 1994.

The Central Arkansas Library Branch located in the Dunbar neighborhood was named for her when it opened in 1997.  She is honored with inclusion in the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail.