Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Looking Back at Little Rock

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Looking Back at Little Rock

Article excerpt

RELATIVELY PROGRESSIVE UPPER-SOUTH CAPITAL CITY Little Rock, Arkansas, was among the first communities below the Potomac to make preparations for compliance with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.1 The percentage of Negro students in Little Rock public schools was less than that of Wilmington, Delaware; Louisville, Kentucky; St. Louis, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Charlotte, Greensboro, or Winston-Salem, North Carolina, cities that had abandoned Jim Crow educational facilities or were in the process of doing so in the fall of 1957.2 Already Little Rock had made inroads on caste inequities in several fringe areas, including seating arrangements on city buses.

While segregation remained the rule and the vast majority of Little Rock's white citizenry preferred it that way, the community had no record of political extremism on the race question. In November 1956, almost half of the city's voters opposed a White Citizens' Councilsponsored constitutional amendment "nullifying" the Brown decision.3 When white supremacy advocates directly challenged Little Rock's token desegregation plan in March 1957 school board elections, extremists were soundly defeated by moderate candidates.4

Yet, in the fall of 1957, Little Rock became the epitome of state resistance. While sharpening political antagonisms in the South, the Little Rock upheaval provided a decisive test not only of the federal government's resolve but also of the national will to enforce Negro rights.5

Thus far the debacle at Little Rock has been pictured in terms of a deliberate conspiracy, either originating when Deep-South racists persuaded Gov. Orval E. Faubus to thwart the creeping advance of integration or when Faubus himself decided to manufacture racial crisis for political gain.6 The significance of Little Rock, both to the "massive resistance" phase of southern politics and to the course of race relations generally, makes the origins of that conflict worth further re-examination.

One day after the May 17, 1954, school desegregation decision, the Little Rock school board instructed Superintendent of Schools Virgil T. Blossom to draw up a plan for compliance.7 Although unenthusiastic about the change, neither Blossom nor any board member suggested defiance of the high court ruling. Later in May 1954, school authorities made public their decision, announcing that planning would begin immediately.8

During the following year, Blossom formulated and reformulated desegregation arrangements. Originally conceived as apian for substantial integration beginning on the grade-school level, the Little Rock Phase Program that emerged in May 1955, provided for token desegregation starting in September 1957 with one senior high school. The second phase would extend tokenism to junior high schools by 1960, with the final step, desegregation on the elementary level, tentatively scheduled for the fall of 1963.9 A transfer provision permitted students to escape from districts where their race was in the minority, thus assuring the heavily Negro Horace Mann High School zone would remain segregated. A rigid screening process eliminated most of those remaining colored students who were eligible and who wanted to attend the formerly white high school.10

Although devoting enormous time and energy to the creation and promotion of the Phase Program, Blossom showed questionable wisdom in his approach to the problems of desegregation.

The plan contained a central flaw. Desegregation was delayed until 1957 specifically to allow time for construction of Hall High School, Little Rock's third center of secondary education. With the exception of limited facilities for technical training, Little Rock had traditionally operated two senior high schools, one for Negroes and one for whites. Upon completion, Hall, located in the western part of the city, enrolled students from the Pulaski Heights region, the status residential area and home of many of Little Rock's most influential people. …

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