The White Citizens' Council and Resistance to School Desegregation in Arkansas

Article excerpt

IT IS ONE OF THE IRONIES OF SOUTHERN HISTORY that Hoxie and Little Rock, Arkansas, have become synonyms for white resistance to desegregation in the era of the "Second Reconstruction." In May 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the school segregation cases, few suspected that in the troubled years ahead Arkansas would provide Deep-South intransigents with the battle cry "Remember Little Rock"-a slogan that recalled for some segregationists the invocation of the longdead patriots who remembered the Alamo. Indeed, Arkansas's pre-eminent stature among the defiant states in the first decade of desegregation is as undeserved as it was unexpected. In 1948, the "Land of Opportunity" became a pioneer among southern states in biracial higher learning when the University of Arkansas lowered its racial barriers without court order and without popular turmoil. It was also the first of the former Confederate states to begin complying with the Court's ruling.

Even before the rendering of the so-called "second Brown decision," the implementation decree of May 30, 1955, four school districts in the state either desegregated their classrooms or moved in that direction.1 Furthermore, while it can hardly be said that state officials were enthusiastic, their reactions to the nullification of the state's separatebut-equal education statutes were among the region's most positive. In vivid contrast to the defiant mood of Deep-South governors, Gov. Francis A. Cherry summarized the position of his administration with a terse observation on May 18, 1954: "Arkansas will obey the law. It always has."2 Nor did the election of Orval E. Faubus signal a shift in official attitude. In his inaugural address in January 1955, Cherry's successor failed even to mention segregation. Similarly, in the legislature, then in its regular sixty-day biennial session, a pupil assignment law designed to preserve segregation in public schools died in the senate.3 Little wonder, then, that an NAACP field secretary during the spring of 1955 could pronounce the state "the bright spot of the south."4

The very paucity of the Negro population itself was a major force working to point the state in the direction of a relatively easy adjustment to desegregation. In 1954, fully 184 of the state's 432 school districts and fifteen of its seventy-five counties had no Negro students at all. Moreover, Negroes constituted 1 percent or less of the total population in twenty-five upcountry counties, and 10 percent or less in twelve more.5 But there were areas in Arkansas where the density of the nonwhite population approached that of black-belt counties in the Deep South. East of the state's fall line, in the lowlands that sweep flat in an alluvial plain toward the "delta" counties along the river, cotton flourished on vast tracts of rich land, much as it did on the opposite shore in Mississippi. Here the great majority of Arkansas's Negro population resided, as did much of its Deep-South racial attitudes.

Quite in keeping with patterns already established in the states of the lower South, organized white resistance to school desegregation in Arkansas began in the black belt. White America, Inc., the first group its kind in the state, emerged during March 1955 in Pine Bluff, seat of Jefferson County, one of only seven Arkansas counties where the black population either equaled or exceeded the white. Patterned after such Deep-South "protective societies" as the Citizens' Council, this ineffective but noisy group of segregationists languished in obscurity until the following September, when it joined other organized white militants in a concerted effort to resegregate the schools in Hoxie.6

A rural trading center in the northeastern portion of the state, Hoxie was an unlikely scene for racial turmoil. Although most whites in this Lawrence County village of some 2,000 inhabitants were opposed to racial integration, they took comfort in the knowledge that in the county at large Caucasians outnumbered Negroes nearly ninety-nine to one. …