Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The 1957 Little Rock Crisis: A Fiftieth Anniversary Retrospective

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The 1957 Little Rock Crisis: A Fiftieth Anniversary Retrospective

Article excerpt

TO MARK THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY of a central episode in America's civil rights history, this special issue of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly brings together a number of the signal works that have been published on the Little Rock crisis in this journal since the 1960s. These articles represent some of the finest scholarship on the crisis that has appeared anywhere and reflect the wide-ranging concerns that have emerged from its study. The purpose of this introductory essay is threefold: first, to provide a very brief summary of the events of the crisis; second, to serve as an outline and a guide to published material on the crisis, whether monographs, essays, or articles, that has appeared over the past fifty years, together with radio broadcasts, music, films, and selected unpublished works; and, finally, to contextualize the body of work republished in this collection within the wider historiography of the crisis.

On September 2, 1957, Gov. Orval E. Faubus drew national and international attention to Little Rock when, in the name of preventing disorder, he called out the National Guard to block implementation of a court-ordered desegregation plan at Central High School. In defying the local courts and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, Faubus directly challenged the authority of the federal government as no other elected southern official had since the Civil War. Over the following weeks, frantic negotiations took place between the White House and the governor's mansion that finally led to the withdrawal of National Guard troops. However, when nine African-American students-Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls-attempted to attend classes on September 23, an unruly white mob caused so much disruption that school officials withdrew them from Central High for their own safety. The scenes of violence finally prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to intervene by sending federal troops to secure the students' safe passage. Finally, on September 25, the nine completed their first day of classes under armed guard.

Although the admission of the students to the school resolved the immediate constitutional crisis and the media spotlight quickly moved elsewhere, that was not the end of the story. The nine students endured a campaign of harassment by white segregationist students inside the high school. On February 6, 1958, Minnijean Brown was expelled for reacting to provocation by white students, although none of the white intimidators of the nine was ever similarly dealt with. On May 25, 1958, Ernest Green, the only senior among the nine, became the first AfricanAmerican student to graduate from Central High.

As the academic year ended and soldiers were withdrawn from Central, the battle over school desegregation continued. On February 20, 1958, the Little Rock school board had requested a two-and-a-half-year delay in its desegregation plan. On June 21, federal district court judge Harry J. Lemley granted the delay. But on August 18, NAACP attorney Wiley Branton successfully overturned the decision on appeal. The school board then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on September 12 ordered school desegregation to continue.

In the meantime, Governor Faubus had convened a special session of the Arkansas General Assembly and pushed through six new laws that provided him with sweeping powers to uphold segregation. One of the laws enabled Faubus to close any school integrated by federal order. Voters in the school district could then decide if the school should reopen on an integrated basis. On the day the U. S. Supreme Court ordered integration to proceed in Little Rock, Faubus closed all of the city's high schools. In the referendum held on September 27, 1958, the governor stacked the cards in his favor by offering a stark choice between keeping the schools closed or accepting "complete and total integration. …

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