On September 12, 1958, a unanimous Supreme Court declined a Little Rock School District request to delay by more than two years the desegregation mandated by the Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board ruling.
In the previous year, President Dwight Eisenhower had called in federal troops to protect a group of nine black students who tried to attend previously segregated Little Rock Central High School. On September 2, 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent National Guard troops to block the students from attending classes.
After a federal court ruling, a mob gathered at the school three weeks later when the students entered class; police had to escort the students out of school for their own safety, and the federal troops arrived the next day to ensure the students could go to school.
In February 1958, the Little Rock School District went to federal court to ask for a delay in the integration plan and in June, a federal judge ruled in the school district’s favor. Judge Harry Lemley of the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas agreed with the request to delay integration at Little Rock until January 1961. Lemley said that conditions of “chaos, bedlam and turmoil” at the school justified the move, and that the current integration plan had an “intolerable” effect on education at the school.
Two months later, a federal appeals court reversed Judge Lemley’s decision and the case was sent directly to the Supreme Court, which convened a special term to hear two sets of oral arguments in Cooper v. Aaron in late August and early September.
The nine Justices, in an unsigned per curium opinion, upheld the appeals court decision and ordered the immediate start of integration at Little Rock Central High School. The Court directly addressed efforts by Arkansas state leaders to delay or ignore desegregation.
“This Court cannot countenance a claim by the Governor and Legislature of a State that there is no duty on state officials to obey federal court orders resting on this Court's considered interpretation of the United States Constitution in Brown v. Board of Education,” the Justices said. “This Court rejects the contention that it should uphold a suspension of the Little Rock School Board’s plan to do away with segregated public schools in Little Rock until state laws and efforts to upset and nullify its holding in the Brown case have been further challenged and tested in the courts.”
The per-curium opinion’s summary ended with a powerful statement: “State support of segregated schools through any arrangement, management, funds or property cannot be squared with the command of the Fourteenth Amendment that no State shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Justice Felix Frankfurter added a signed, concurring opinion. He noted that Little Rock’s original desegregation plan was approved by the courts, and it was the intervention of Governor Faubus that accelerated the controversy. “The tragic aspect of this disruptive tactic was that the power of the State was used not to sustain law, but as an instrument for thwarting law,” Frankfurter said.
Soon after the Court’s opinion was read, Governor Faubus ordered all four Little Rock high schools to close, as part of a failed plan to continue segregation by leasing the schools to private companies. The high schools remained closed for almost 11 months until a federal court ruled the state law that permitted the closings was unconstitutional.
Scott Bomboy is editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.