Desegregating Downtown Little Rock: The Field Reports of SNCC's Bill Hansen, October 23 to December 3, 1962

By Riva, Sarah | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Desegregating Downtown Little Rock: The Field Reports of SNCC's Bill Hansen, October 23 to December 3, 1962


Riva, Sarah, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


FIFTY YEARS AGO, STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE (SNCC) worker William "Bill" Hansen arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas. He would have a striking and transformative impact on the city. In the space of just over a month, Hansen coordinated sit-in protests at downtown department-store lunch counters, forcing business leaders to concede that the time had come to end segregation in the city. By January 1963, the first phase of a plan that would desegregate many of Little Rock's lunch counters and eventually other private and public facilities had been implemented.1

But Hansen's arrival in Little Rock would be a turning point not only for the state's capital city but for the state as a whole. Having initiated the desegregation of facilities in Little Rock, Hansen turned his attention to establishing SNCC projects across the Arkansas Delta, where segregation was much more entrenched. In concert with others from both outside and within the state, he worked toward ending the numerous forms of racial discrimination encountered by African Americans. 2 During the next four years, in a number of delta communities, public facilities were integrated, and African Americans began to vote in larger numbers, run for public office, and demand access to better, often integrated schools.

Bill Hansen arrived in Little Rock on the early morning of October 24, 1962, at the request of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR). An interracial civil rights group, the ACHR had been established in 1954, after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision led to the reorganization of the state's branch of the Southern Regional Council. The ACHR had played a low-key role in the state, providing legal aid to the Hoxie School District in 1955, when trouble flared there over school desegregation. It remained in the background during the 1957 Little Rock School Crisis, but after Little Rock high schools reopened with token integration in August 1959, the ACHR looked to build on that limited progress by encouraging the city's white businessmen to instigate further change in Little Rock's racial order. Those pleas had largely fallen on deaf ears. Moreover, the failure of the 1960 sit-in movement and the 1961 Freedom Rides to produce concrete results in Little Rock convinced the director of the ACHR, Nat Griswold, and Associate Director Ozell Sutton that outside help was necessary to enable the local African-American population to combat ongoing racial injustice in the city.3

Although Hansen's assignment in 1962 was intended as a shortterm posting, it led to the establishment of a third major regional project for SNCC. The two already in place, in Mississippi and Georgia, focused mainly on voter registration. Often overlooked by historians, Arkansas's SNCC Project played an important part in the story of this major national civil rights organization. SNCC had emerged out of the 1960 sit-in movement inspired by students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro. Ella Baker, acting executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), subsequently organized a conference of sit-in protestors at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, that met April 15-17. Intended as a forum where the students could discuss the successes, failures, and tactics of their local sit-ins, the conference ended with the organization of SNCC. Baker urged students to move away from a "leader-centered group pattern" of organization to a form of participatory democracy and "group-centered leadership." 4

Between the creation of SNCC in April 1960 and Hansen's arrival in Little Rock in October 1962, both the organization and Hansen had been engaged in a number of struggles. In 1961, SNCC became involved in the Freedom Rides, launched by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) that ordered the desegregation of interstate bus terminal facilities. …

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