Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Power from the Pedestal: The Women's Emergency Committee and the Little Rock School Crisis

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Power from the Pedestal: The Women's Emergency Committee and the Little Rock School Crisis

Article excerpt

IN THE SPRING OF 1957, LITTLE ROCK was, by most accounts, a thriving and progressive southern city. In the postwar decade, the city's leaders vigorously pursued a plan of economic development, and race relations were considered good and improving.1 In voluntary compliance with the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision, Little Rock School District officials developed a desegregation plan, and an NAACP representative referred to Little Rock as "the bright spot of the South" in terms of school desegregation.2 Thus, as the first day of school approached in 1957, no one anticipated that Little Rock would become an international symbol of racism and massive resistance.

On September 2, 1957, just hours before the start of the new school year, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to surround Central High School to prevent integration. For three weeks, Faubus defied a federal court order to proceed with integration, and President Eisenhower ultimately had to send troops from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to ensure that nine black students would be allowed to attend school. The paratroopers occupied the high school for several months, and federalized National Guardsmen remained in the halls of Central High School for the entire school year.

The end of the school year, however, provided little relief for the city. While school officials worked to delay integration, Faubus traveled the state, campaigning for reelection as an ardent segregationist. Emboldened by his Democratic primary victory in late July, Faubus called a special session of the legislature, which granted him the power to close schools that fall to prevent integration.

On Friday, September 12, 1958, the United States Supreme Court ordered the Little Rock School District to proceed with integration. In response, Governor Faubus immediately closed all of the city's public high schools. As the governor signed this school closing legislation, three white women gathered in an antebellum mansion just a few blocks from the state capitol. There, beneath the portrait of her father in Confederate uniform, Adolphine Terry sat with Vivion Brewer and Velma Powell, laying the groundwork for the first effective opposition to the city's segregationists. Four days later, they founded the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC). In the ensuing months, the women of the WEC publicly challenged the segregationists at every turn, and their actions were instrumental in the defeat of the extremists and the reopening of the city schools.

Although the WEC was the first organized white opposition to the city's segregationists and was central to the resolution of the school crisis, no study of the organization exists. Few accounts have even mentioned the WEC, in part because much of the secondary material on the Little Rock experience is contained in larger works on school desegregation or civil rights.3 Within such broad surveys, Little Rock is treated as merely one episode in a continuing saga of resistance. Moreover, even in the literature devoted specifically to Little Rock, most studies focus on the first year of the crisis (1957-1958), when federal troops occupied Central High and the dramatic conflict between Governor Faubus and President Eisenhower tested the power of the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court's decision.4 Only a few authors have studied the second year of the crisis, when the power struggles were local and the WEC occupied center stage.

In The Little Rock Recall Election, Henry Alexander examined the climactic event in the city's school crisis and provided the first scholarly reference to the WEC in his discussion of the organization's role in the 1959 recall campaign.5 However, his study provides little information about the membership of the WEC or its development prior to the election. In "Taken By Surprise," Elizabeth Jacoway provides an important introduction to the social origins of the WEC, but her focus is on the failure of Little Rock's civic leadership during the crisis, and she therefore does not provide a full discussion of the WEC's activities. …

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