Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Politics and Law in the Little Rock Crisis, 1954-1957

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Politics and Law in the Little Rock Crisis, 1954-1957

Article excerpt

On the morning of September 3, 1957, the world learned that Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas had blocked the federally mandated integration of Little Rock Central High School. The governor's action initiated a confrontation between state and federal authority that persisted for two years.1 Proponents of integration believed that political ambition was behind Faubus's decision to obstruct integration.2 Supporters of segregation, however, traced the controversy to the community's stand for states' rights against an impending Communist threat and the unconstitutional use of federal judicial and executive power.3 Other analyses have stressed the need to understand the complex factors giving rise to and perpetuating the Little Rock crisis, emphasizing a failure of leadership in the national government and on the local level to adequately prepare the city of Little Rock for integration.4

Recognizing that the origins of the crisis were complex, this study examines the role of law as a political and social force influencing the course of events leading up to the fateful day of September 3. The examination shows that both supporters and opponents of integration developed justifications for their positions based upon the value of the rule of law. This reliance upon legalism increasingly became absorbed in political considerations, which in turn created uncertainty as to the constitutional basis of integration. The interplay of law and politics shaped decisions concerning integration that resulted in confrontation and conflict.5

The integral connection between federal judicial action and local politics began in 1954 with the Supreme Court's landmark Brown decision. While unanimously and clearly holding that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, the Court also ordered further argument concerning the decision's implementation. The Court considered this issue during the spring of 1955. In order to give thorough consideration to wideranging factors involving compliance, the Court invited the states affected to submit briefs on the situations in their public schools and local communities. These briefs pressed upon the Court the need for attention to local circumstances in the enforcement of Brown. On May 31, the Court responded to these pleas by ordering that integration should proceed "with all deliberate speed." The intent of the 1955 decision (known thereafter as Brown II) was to give localities maximum flexibility while obligating them to a "prompt and reasonable start" toward integration. In practical terms, this meant, however, that state officials, local school boards, and federal district judges had been given an ambiguous mandate that could be interpreted to justify delay and gradualism.6

Local political considerations influenced the drafting of the brief filed by Arkansas during the hearings preceding the Brown II decision. Even though the state's attorney general was nominally in charge of drawing up the brief, its contents and approach were formulated by Richard B. McCulloch, an attorney from the east Arkansas community of Forrest City. East Arkansas included the Mississippi delta region where plantation agriculture was predominant. In this region, a majority of the state's blacks lived, outnumbering whites in some areas. Delta blacks also provided vital labor for the area's economy. McCulloch, a graduate of Harvard Law School and recognized among members of the state's bar as a leading constitutional lawyer, had been hired by several delta school districts to represent their interests as Arkansas moved toward compliance with the Supreme Court's overruling of segregation. Regional alignments of counties dominated legislative and gubernatorial politics in the state. The delta counties represented a major political force; elected and appointed officials from the region were influential in the state's public schools administration. Through this influence, McCulloch was given an instrumental role in putting together the Arkansas brief for Brown II. …

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