Tag Archive for 'desegregation'

From the Archives: The NAACP Reviews Robert H. Bork

This post contains highlights of material from the Triangle Research Libraries Network’s CCC project, digitizing 40 archival collections related to the long civil rights movement from four area institutions. For more on this digitization project, click here.

Judge Bork's Views Regarding Racial Discrimination

Former Solicitor General and US Court of Appeals judge Robert H. Bork is remembered for his role in the Watergate scandal and his time serving as an advisor to Mitt Romney, but perhaps most vividly for the historic rejection of his nomination to the US Supreme Court. After President Reagan recommended Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, the nomination was strongly opposed by a public campaign led by Democratic politicians like Edward Kennedy and organizations that included the NAACP, ACLU, and NOW.

Bork’s record as a strict constructionist who often disagreed with the racial and gender reforms of the 1960s and 1970s concerned many civil and women’s rights activists who feared that, as a Supreme Court Justice, Bork might work to overturn recent decisions on abortion and affirmative action. In August 1987, the NAACP released a report on “Judge Bork’s Views Regarding Racial Discrimination,” in which they detailed Bork’s record of opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and his criticism of previous voting rights and affirmative action-related decisions. A copy of the NAACP’s report can be found in the Helen Edmonds papers. In one section the report quotes an article Bork wrote in 1964 where he described the “dangers” implied by the 1964 Civil Rights Act that “enforc[es] associations between private individuals which would, if uniformly applied, destroy personal freedom over broad areas of life.” 1 Bork’s hostility to the Civil Rights Act is attributed by the NAACP to his belief “that it infringed on the freedom of whites to discriminate.” 2 The report also highlighted Bork’s disapproval of laws protecting minorities against housing discrimination and poll taxes, as well as his support of Nixon’s anti-busing legislation, which hoped to limit the use of busing to desegregate public school systems across the South.

It was documents like this NAACP report that swayed opinion against Bork in 1987. After his nomination was rejected, Bork left the Court of Appeals and spent the rest of his life as a scholar, legal advisor, and best-selling author. Despite his controversial career, Bork was an extremely influential figure who inspired a generation of conservative lawyers and politicians. Judge Bork passed away in December 2012.

1. “Judge Bork’s Views Regarding Racial Discrimination.” Helen G. Edmonds Papers. Folder 100, Scan 1.

2. “Judge Bork’s Views Regarding Racial Discrimination.” Helen G. Edmonds Papers. Folder 100, Scan 15.

From the Archives: Historic Library Desegregation

This post contains highlights of material from the Triangle Research Libraries Network’s CCC project, digitizing 40 archival collections related to the long civil rights movement from four area institutions. For more on this digitization project, click here.

News clipping announcing desegregation of Charlottesville public librarys

Newsclipping, North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation Records, Folder 71, Scan 2

In the South, many public library facilities were not desegregated until the 1960s; however, a newsclipping in the North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation Records briefly describes the “historic” decision made in Charlottesville, Virginia, to merge the main library system with the city’s “colored branch” and open Charlottesville’s downtown library to African Americans in 1948.1This event followed a similar desegregation of the public library system in Richmond, Virginia, in 1947.

Before this integration, Charlottesville had maintained separate library services for blacks and whites for 14 years, though the black library had never had a building of its own. Jefferson School was built in 1926 to serve as a high school for blacks in the community; after its completion, Jefferson High School became one of only ten African American high schools in the state of Virginia.2 Beginning in 1934, Jefferson School also housed Charlottesville city’s “Library for Colored Citizens,” an institution dedicated to providing educational resources to the black community at a time when blacks did not have access to the city’s primary library collections, due to the city’s mandate for strictly segregated library facilities.3 This school-library combination was fairly common in African American communities during the era of de jure segregation.4

All this changed in 1948 when the African American library joined the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library system. The “Colored Branch Library at Jefferson School,” as it had been know, was officially closed, and Charlottesville’s main downtown library was opened to blacks for the first time.5 Across the South, once begun, the desegregation of libraries tended to happen more quickly than other public institutions, but public library segregation was not brought to an end without its share of sit-ins and protests. However, on the whole, Southern cities seemed more open to integrating libraries than other public facilities such as buses, swimming pools, and schools. Gradually additional Southern localities began to follow the example set by early adopters, so that in 1953, more than a year before the Brown v. Board decision, 59 Southern cities and counties permitted “full use” of the main public library to African Americans. By 1963 this number had grown to 271.4

The headline “Charlottesville Drops Library Segregation” which appeared in 1948 was a sign of greater progress to come, and this clipping provides us with a brief glimpse into the fascinating history of public library desegregation.

1. “Charlottesville Drops Library Segregation,” Norfolk Journal and Guide

2. http://jeffersoncitycenter.com/city_center/history.php

3. National Register of Historic Places: Jefferson School and Carver Recreation Center

4. Fultz, Michael. “Black Public Libraries in the South in the Era of De Jure Segregation.” Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(3), Summer 2006.

5. Jefferson-Madison Regional Library

“A Nation That Forgets God Will Fall”: Debating Engel v. Vitale

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was not “separate but equal” but instead an unconstitutional practice.  This decision infuriated many, especially in the South, who thought that the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds.  Included among the disgusted was Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, an outspoken “Dixiecrat” (a member of the Democratic Party who supported segregation as well as socially conservative positions).

Members of Congress who opposed integration did not have the political power to pass any sort of Constitutional amendment to counter the Supreme Court’s ruling.  The frustration of Whitener and fellow Dixiecrats only intensified as integration began across the South.

Another ruling in 1962 further infuriated social conservatives throughout the country and led some to seek extraordinary solutions.  In Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled in a six-to-one decision that school-sponsored prayer in public schools was unconstitutional.  Justice Hugo Black, writing the majority opinion, stated his objection to the prayer instituted by the state of New York thus:

We think that, by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity. It is a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty.

Justice Black’s constitutional logic may have been sound, but his rationale did not mollify the anger of social conservatives who balked at the Court’s perceived abridgment of the right to pray at any given location.

Petition regarding prayer in school, sent to Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, circa 1962. Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 144, Folder 4, blwms03004083.

Congressman Whitener received petitions from his constituents, including the document shown on the left in which several North Carolina residents ask for a constitutional amendment to re-legalize state-sponsored prayer in public schools. In part, the petitioners claimed that, “Our Nation was founded upon God and has prospered more than any nation in the world.  History has proven that a Nation That Forgets God Will Fall” (emphasis in original).  This document found a sympathetic ear in Congressman Whitener.  In fact, Whitener introduced one of many House resolutions that included a constitutional amendment overturning Engel v. Vitale. The proposed amendment that gained the most political traction was one officially introduced in 1964 by Congressman Frank Becker (R-NY).  The Becker Amendment read in part:

Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to prohibit the offering, reading from, or listening to prayers or biblical scriptures, if participation therein is on a voluntary basis, in any governmental or public school . . .

Whitener’s constituents gathered their support behind the Becker Amendment. Religious groups such as Project America: International Christian Youth – USA sent a large number of form letters to Whitener’s office asking the congressman to support the Becker Amendment. One such letter is shown below:

Form letter, Cliff Wright to Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, circa 1964. Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 147, Folder 4, blwms04004006.

As one might expect, Whitener was a fervent supporter of the Becker Amendment. However, most of Congress did not share that position. A campaign against the amendment, ironically led by the National Council of Churches and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, effectively killed the amendment’s momentum.

Ultimately, it is true that Whitener’s opposition to integration and enthusiasm for prayer in school went against the policy of the nation. Yet both the Brown v. Board of Education and Engel v. Vitale decisions were crucial events in developing a social conservative movement characterized by a hybridization of small-government ideology with religiously influenced policy recommendations.

Furthermore, as part of the CCC Project, it is important to look not only at the successes of those who fought for civil rights. The context of those successes is, in part, the reaction of those who felt betrayed by their government and how that resentment changed American politics.

Sources
Encyclopedia of Civil Liberties (Becker Amendment)
The Oyez Project (Engel v. Vitale)
Justia U.S. Supreme Court Center (Engel v. Vitale)

Remembering Rosa Parks

On December 1, 1955—57 years ago today—civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her arrest would set off a nearly year-long battle against segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

In the 1950s, the first ten seats in Montgomery’s public buses were reserved for white passengers, while African Americans were made to sit in the back. Seated in the front of the African American section of a city bus, Parks refused to move when the driver told her to give up her seat to a white male passenger. She was arrested and convicted of disorderly contact.

Her arrest inspired a group of civil rights leaders to organize a bus boycott, which was immediately successful in emptying the buses. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., was formed to supervise the boycott that emerged and gained momentum over the next year as African Americans boycotted public transportation facilities in protest of the arrest and of segregation laws in general. Simultaneously, Parks’ lawyer filed for appeal of her conviction.

Nearly a year later, in November 1956, leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were at long last able to celebrate victory after the Supreme Court (in a separate case regarding racial segregation) ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional. The Court upheld a U.S. district court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle, in which bus segregation laws were found to be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision involved only Alabama laws, but it had far-reaching effects; at the time, seven other states had laws similar to those found unconstitutional in Alabama.

Thus, the movement Rosa Parks helped inspire achieved a decisive victory; the activists’ success heralded future progress against segregation and discrimination.

Parks paid the price; she lost her job after her arrest and had to move after she was unable to secure new work. Later, she would spend more than twenty years as secretary to U.S. Representative John Conyers. At the same time, she cofounded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation, and, a few years later, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.

Parks later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, among many other awards and honors. After her death, she became the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

Her life was chronicled in the documentary Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks.

To learn more about Rosa Parks, and to view her arrest records, check out this page from the National Archives’ website. To view Parks’ arrest photo, click here. More information can also be found on the Scholastic website, online at Gale Cengage Learning,  and in Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins’ Rosa Parks: My Story (Puffin 1992). With Gregory Reed, she also published a memoir, Quite Strength.

Numerous books pay tribute to Parks’ courage; some of these include Douglas Brinkley’s Rosa Parks: A Life (Penguin 2005) and Jeanne Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon, forthcoming in January 2013). Readers may also be interested in the juvenile nonfiction book, The Bus Ride that Changed History: The Story of Rosa Parks, by Danny Shanahan and Pamela Duncan Edwards (Houghton Mifflin 2005).

To learn more about the long history of protests against transportation discrimination, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press, 2010).

For more information about the Montgomery bus boycott, check out Stewart Burns’ Daybreak of Freedom (UNC Press, 1997), this blog post, and this page from the PBS website. For a video clip from PBS, click here.

Remembering the Albany Movement

On November 17, 1961—51 years ago today—representatives from various civil rights organizations including the NAACP and SNCC, as well as individual residents frustrated by segregation, came together in Georgia to form the Albany Movement—a coalition that would spend the next year fighting for integration.

Two weeks earlier, the Interstate Commerce Commission’s official ban of interstate bus segregation had gone into effect; on instruction from SNCC leaders, nine students from Albany State College had conducted a sit-in to test these policies. These students’ actions, as well as the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott several years earlier, helped inspire the formation of the Albany Movement.

Hoping to achieve the desegregation of all facilities throughout Albany, Georgia, activists utilized nonviolent mass demonstrations, sit-ins, litigation, and other tactics, all the while fighting for the release of individuals jailed in desegregation protests and for the establishment of a biracial committee to further the desegregation movement. These protesters lived under the constant threat of arrest; more than 500 were jailed in the first couple of weeks, and that number quickly reached 1,000.

Once Martin Luther King, Jr., became involved with the coalition, the Movement predictably gained national attention. After King was arrested on December 16, city officials and protesters reached a truce. However, the peace did not last, and demonstrations and arrests both increased.

Unfortunately, despite its success in mobilizing mass nonviolent protests, the Movement was not concretely successful at eliminating segregation policies. Albany’s police chief, Laurie Pritchett, was determined to block the movement’s progress, and his tactics were quite effective. That said, as King explained, civil rights leaders were able to learn from the Albany Movement, paving the way for future struggles, such as the Birmingham Campaign of 1963. And of course, local activism continued even after the Albany Movement itself wound down, with segregation laws ending in the spring of 1963.

To learn more about the Albany Movement, check out this page from Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, this page from the New Georgia Encyclopedia, this page from the University of Georgia, and this page from PBS.

Archival resources can be found in the Civil Rights Digital Library. Information on the Albany Movement is also included in Swarthmore College’s Global Nonviolent Action Database.

To learn more, check out this news story published fifty years after the movement.

To learn more about Charles Sherrod, one SNCC activist who helped start the campaign and later became a city commissioner, check out this article.

To learn more about the Interstate Commerce Commission’s segregation ban, check out this page from the Federal Highway Administration and this blog post. To read the regulations, click here.

To learn more about SNCC, check out this blog post.

Remembering Ruby Bridges

On November 14, 1960—52 years ago today—Ruby Bridges became the first African American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South, when court-ordered integration in New Orleans, Louisiana, allowed her to enroll at William Frantz Elementary School. On the same day, three other African American students together integrated another previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans.

It had been more than six years since the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated public schools unconstitutional, but school districts across the South still resisted integration.

During the spring of 1960, Bridges’ parents had responded to requests from the NAACP for children to participate in the integration of the New Orleans Schools. After a test, six children were chosen to integrate the schools; two decided to remain in their old schools and three were transferred to integrate another school, McDonough No. 19. This left Bridges the sole African American student assigned to William Frantz Elementary. November 14 was set as the date when the four students would integrate the two schools.

That day, U.S. Marshals escorted six-year-old Bridges to her new school amid a large and loud crowd surrounded by police officers on horseback. It certainly was not a smooth transition at either school; white parents pulled their children out of school, and a new teacher had to be hired to teach only Bridges once all the other teachers refused. Bridges, at only six years old, endured constant hostility and threats.

The trouble was not confined to the school; Bridges’ father lost his job, and her grandparents, both sharecroppers, were turned off their land. Friends and family, though, both white and African American, supported Bridges and her family, protecting them and helping her father find a new job.

Fortunately, Bridges’ experience with her teacher, Barbara Henry, was excellent. She was Henry’s sole pupil that year, and Henry provided her not only with an education but with support. Bridges stayed at William Frantz Elementary through the sixth grade, and each year more African American students joined her.

She eventually returned to the school as a volunteer parent liaison after she took over guardianship of her deceased brother’s children. Bridges continues to travel around the country and observe how the civil rights movement is taught in schools. In 1999, she founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and respect.

Over the years, Bridges has been portrayed in multiple forms of media, such as the 1998 made-for-television movie Ruby Bridges and Lori McKenna’s song “Ruby’s Shoes.” Her first day of school was portrayed by Norman Rockwell in his 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With.”

Bridges’ courage is still remembered today, more than five decades later. In 2001, President Clinton included Bridges among 28 recipients of the Presidential Citizens Medal (also included in the list were Irene Morgan, Constance Baker Motley, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth). A school district later dedicated an elementary school to her, and Tulane University granted her an honorary degree earlier this year.

The school Bridges integrated eventually underwent significant demographic changes, becoming mostly African American. Bridges and others successfully had the school recognized on the National Register of Historic Places; however, just a few months later, the school closed after Hurricane Katrina damaged the building. Bridges wasn’t going to watch this important landmark disappear, though; the Recovery School District refurbished the school. Bridges remains active in the school, advocating the teaching of history and focusing on community service and social justice. (To learn more about this, check out this Washington Post article.)

Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist who volunteered to meet weekly with Bridges during her first year of school, later wrote a children’s book entitled The Story of Ruby Bridges.

To learn more, and to read Bridges’ memories, check out this article from CBS News and this PBS story. For newspaper coverage of that first day, check out this Associated Press article.

To learn more, check out Bridges’ children’s books, Through My Eyes (Scholastic 1999), Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story (Scholastic 2009), and Let’s Read About . . . Ruby Bridges (Scholastic 2003).

In this 2010 Washington Post article, Bridges shares her memories of her first days of school.

To learn more about the integration of New Orleans’ public schools, check out this collection from the Civil Rights Digital Library.

In her children’s book, Remember: The Journey to School Integration (Houghton Mifflin 2004), which includes numerous archival photographs depicting school desegregation, Toni Morrison presented a fictional account of the dialogue and emotions of the children who lived during this era.

To learn about racial and economic school resegregation, check out John Boger and Gary Orfield’s edited volume School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back? (UNC Press 2005).

To learn more about the fight for integration, check out Mark Tushnet’s The NAACP’s Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925-1950 (UNC Press, 2005).

Lucy v. Adams and the Initial Integration of the University of Alabama

On October 10, 1955—57 years ago today—the Supreme Court in Lucy v. Adams unanimously ordered the University of Alabama to accept its first African American students.

The decision had been several years in the making. Autherine Lucy, a 1952 graduate of Miles College, went to court with Polly Anne Myers in July 1953, determined to gain entrance to the University’s graduate school. However, Myers was unmarried and pregnant at the time, and thus was ineligible for admittance under “moral codes” which then governed admissions. Lucy continued the lawsuit by herself.

A U.S. District Court found that denying the students’ applications violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. After the case was appealed, it made its way to the Supreme Court. Lucy and Meyers were backed by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, with Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, and Arthur Shores as their legal representatives.

Finally, more than two years after the battle began and a year and a half after the famous decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional, the Court ordered the University to admit Lucy. However, the Court did not prevent the University from denying admittance to all other African American applicants.

Lucy attended her first classes the following February, but the success was temporary. Lucy’s admission incited threats from students and community members. After mobs threw rocks and eggs at her—necessitating a police escort—the University suspended her, citing concerns for her safety.

Although the NAACP took the matter to court, lawyers were unsuccessful, and Lucy was ultimately expelled from the school. Her admission, however, paved the way for sustained desegregation in 1963, when two African American students were enrolled. Lucy herself returned to the University three decades later, receiving a master’s degree in elementary education on the same day that her daughter received her degree in corporate finance.

Lucy’s story—and the initial failure of the University of Alabama to abide by the Supreme Court’s orders—is a distressing reminder that segregation and discrimination did not end with Brown v. Board of Education, but it is also a heartening tale of dedication and persistence in the face of hostility, threats, and violence.

To learn more about Autherine Lucy, check out this blog post about her first day at the University, and this blog post about her graduation in 1992. For a brief history and photos, check out this page from the University of Alabama’s web site.

Armando G. Hernandez’s article in the SAGE Encyclopedia of African American Education offers a wonderful summary of the legal battle.

Several years later, when two more students tried to enroll at the University of Alabama, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium, attempting to prevent their enrollment. President Kennedy ordered Wallace to cease and desist—but it took more than four hours before Brigadier General Henry Graham of the National Guard enforced the order, allowing James Hood and Vivian Malone to register at long last and forever integrating the University. To learn more about the final integration of the University in 1963, check out this blog post, as well as E. Culpepper Clark’s The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama (Oxford University Press 1995).

To view a timeline of the struggle for educational equality, check out this page from Harvard@Home.

On This Day: James Meredith Integrates the University of Mississippi

On October 1, 1962—50 years ago today—the University of Mississippi was finally integrated 115 after its founding when James Meredith successfully enrolled in classes.

Meredith, a United States Air Force veteran, had spent the previous sixteen months repeatedly attempting to enroll and fighting for this right in the courts. On September 20th, armed with a court order, Meredith attempted to enter campus, but was blocked both by white mobs and by the state’s governor, Ross Barnett.

It was a turbulent time. A riot resulted in two deaths and many injuries; however, Meredith was determined to see it through. He was finally successfully enrolled on October 1—but only after President John F. Kennedy condemned the rioters and the state officials who sought to ignore the court order. Protected by National Guard troops and military police, Meredith endured months of discrimination and threats.

Less than a year after he integrated the school, on August 18, 1963, Meredith received his bachelor of arts in political science. The New  York Times ran an article and picture of Meredith front and center that day (click here to see a copy of the August 18 article, provided by the digital archives).

Meredith continued to play a role in the civil rights struggle. Several years later, he planned a solitary march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to dispel fears of life in Mississippi and encourage other African Americans to register to vote. During this March Against Fear, Meredith was shot and wounded.

To learn more about James Meredith and the University’s integration, check out this page from the U.S. Marshals website, and this page from the UPI blog.

To learn more about James Meredith, click here, and check out Charles W. Eagles’ The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (UNC Press 2009).

On This Day: The ICC and Interstate Transportation Desegregation

On September 22, 1961—51 years ago today—the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), at Robert Kennedy’s insistence, ordered an end to segregation on interstate transportation and within transportation facilities.

The Commission’s new rules, which were set to become effective on November 1, 1961, followed years of anti-segregation demonstrations, perhaps most notably by the Freedom Riders who risked verbal and physical attacks to challenge Jim Crow laws. Although individuals and groups had challenged segregation for decades, the Freedom Rides officially began in May 1961, and were heavily reported by national and international media.

Robert Kennedy, who had sought protection for Freedom Riders, asked the Interstate Commerce Commission on May 30 to end bus segregation. In mid-August, the Justice Department urged the Commission to back these plans, and on September 23, the ICC announced the new rules, which prohibited segregation in interstate travel and required interstate buses to post signs reading “Seating aboard this vehicle is without regard to race, color, creed or national origin by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission.”

The new rules certainly represented a great victory; however, questions remained over whether transportation officials would actually follow them. Civil rights activists from groups like the NAACP and CORE put enforcement to the test, traveling through many Southern states. They found that some areas were fully compliant with the new rules, while others—especially in Mississippi and Alabama—resisted them.

Ultimately, federal court rulings proved necessary (see, for example, a ruling by a federal court voiding three Mississippi segregation laws). However, the ICC ruling represented a significant step in the fight against segregation, and a milestone in the broader civil rights movement.

To learn more, check out this page from the Federal Highway Administration. To read the regulations, click here.

To read an article from the Crisis, click here.

To read about the Freedom Rides, check out this blog post and also Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press 2007).  A documentary film on the freedom riders is available via PBS.

To learn more about protests against transportation discrimination, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press 2010).

To learn more about Robert Kennedy, check out this page from Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

On This Day: Cooper v. Aaron

On September 12, 1958—54 years ago today—the Supreme Court in its landmark case Cooper v. Allen ruled that the states (in this case, Arkansas) were bound by the Supreme Court’s decisions, and therefore could not pass laws or constitutional amendments designed to negate the Court’s rulings.

Four years earlier, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court had ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional—and then, in the 1955 Brown II decision, the Court had ordered school districts to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”

The integration orders met resistance in many states, including Arkansas, where the legislature (supported by the governor) passed laws and even constitutional amendments outlawing integration.

In September 1957, the world watched as nine African American students, escorted by more than 1,000 armed soldiers, attended their first day of school in Little Rock, Arkansas. For the remainder of the school year, these nine African American students endured intimidation, bullying, and threats of violence, as well as physical and verbal attacks.

In February 1958, a local federal court approved the school board’s request to remove the African American students and postpone integration. Fought by the NAACP, the case made its way first to a Court of Appeals and then to the United States Supreme Court.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court ordered that the African American students be allowed to remain in school and that integration must move forward.

The constitutional rights of children not to be discriminated against in school admission on grounds of race or color declared by this court in the Brown case can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted ‘ingeniously or ingenuously.’

Although the Court recognized that public education was primarily a state issue, it made clear that the U.S. Constitution was the “supreme Law of the Land.” Expanding on the reach and significance of the ruling, the Court stated that the Arkansas was bound by its orders and therefore, no legislation or amendment could be used to negate the opinion of the nation’s highest court.

Article VI of the Constitution makes the Constitution the ‘supreme Law of the Land.’ In 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for a unanimous Court, referring to the Constitution as ‘the fundamental and paramount law of the nation,’ declared in the notable case of Marbury v. Madison… that ‘It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.’ This decision declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by this Court and the Country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system. . . . No state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it.

With this unanimous decision, the Court ordered the school district to admit African American students for the new school year. The significance of this ruling cannot be overstated. The Court made it clear that federal courts can and should enforce federal civil rights laws and court decisions, taking one more step in the fight for integration and equality.

To learn more about Cooper v. Aaron, check out this page from PBS and this page from the U.S. Department of State.  Readers will also be interested in Tony Freyer’s Little Rock on Trial: Cooper v. Aaron and School Desegregation (University Press of Kansas 2007).

To listen to the oral arguments, check out this page from Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Oyez Project.  To read the full text of the opinion, click here.

To read about the Little Rock Nine, check out this blog post. Readers might also be interested in Karen Anderson’s Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School (Princeton University Press 2009), John A. Kirk’s edited collection An Epitaph for Little Rock: A Fiftieth Anniversary Retrospective of the Central High Crisis (University of Arkansas Press 2008), and John A. Kirk’s edited collection Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis (University of Arkansas Press 2007).