Jury Trials and Gerrymanders: The Legal Effort to Maintain Segregation in July of 1957

Article excerpt

IN THE FINAL DAYS of summer 1957, the battle for civil rights dramatically entered the consciousness of many Americans. Roughly three years earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and in 1957, it would be implemented in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was not thought that integration in Arkansas would be particularly difficult. Arkansas, a border state, was not given to the sorts of wild excesses seen in the Deep South, and Governor Orval Faubus was considered a moderate on race. Nine black students were carefully selected for what was expected to be the peaceful integration of Central High School.

On the day that classes would begin, Governor Faubus, asserting that it was a state's right to maintain segregation, blocked the entrance of the school with members of the Arkansas National Guard and State Patrol and threatened that "blood would run in the streets" if any attempt was made to integrate the school. When a black student attempted to enter the school, a cry went through the crowd to lynch her. One man was heard to shout, "Get a rope and drag her to this tree." (1)

For three weeks, Faubus maintained his blockade, preventing the integration of the school until 23 September when he complied with a court order to remove the Guard and the Patrol officers. That Faubus stood down did nothing to deter the mobs that he had inspired to gather outside of the school. With the black students inside the school, outside, the mob erupted in violence.

The defiance of a Federal District Court order by Arkansas officials and the interference by a mob with the execution of that order focused the nation's attention on one of the central issues of the civil rights era--that of state versus federal authority. In Little Rock, federal authority prevailed. On 24 September, President Eisenhower could tolerate no more. Despite a campaign pledge not to employ the military to enforce the Brown decision--a pledge that could not have helped but embolden the segregationists--Eisenhower announced that soldiers under federal command would restore the peace in Little Rock. "The very basis of our individual rights and freedoms," Eisenhower said, "rests upon the certainty that the president and the executive branch of government will support and insure the carrying out of the decisions of the federal courts, even, when necessary, with all the means at the president's command." Eisenhower ordered the military to enforce the Brown decision in Little Rock. (2)

While Little Rock was certainly the most dramatic civil rights event of the year, two court cases were unfolding in July 1957 that questioned the relationship between state and federal power in a way that would have had arguably as great an impact on the civil rights debate as Eisenhower backing desegregation with federal force. A contempt trial in Tennessee, after violence disrupted the school desegregation in Clinton, illustrated the Congressional debate over civil rights. More importantly, the state of Alabama had brazenly constructed legislation to disenfranchise its black voters in Tuskegee through what amounted to a loophole in constitutional precedent. This case would travel to the U.S. Supreme Court and, eventually, hand the government the axe with which it would dismember Jim Crow.

That this occurred in the summer of 1957 could be traced, in large part, to the likelihood that, after nearly a century of denial and neglect, Congress would pass civil rights legislation in 1957. The Congress had considered some form of civil rights legislation every year between 1945 and 1956 although, thus far, none had passed. (3) However, hopes were running high for a bill in 1957. Eisenhower had carried the black vote in the presidential election of 1956, the first Republican to do so in nearly thirty years, causing the Republicans to see the potential in black ballots. The Republican realization that they could add black voters to their tent fractured the uneasy conservative coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats in the Senate that had long held what amounted to a veto over any civil rights legislation in Congress. …