On Sept. 27, 1958, 60 years ago this month, Little Rock decided by a vote of 19,470 to 7,561 to keep its public high schools closed rather than desegregate them. Although the events of school desegregation at Central High in September 1957 are etched in the local, state and national consciousness, the events of the following year are unjustly overlooked. When they are mentioned at all, people refer to them as the “Lost Year.” The term is misleading because the year was not lost, but rather tossed — that is, thrown willfully away by a predominantly white Little Rock electorate that was hoodwinked by segregationist politicians into believing that the city could survive without public schools. Events proved just how wrong those politicians were.
School closing was the result of an ongoing legal battle over school desegregation. On Feb. 20, 1958, the Little Rock School Board petitioned U.S. District Court Judge Harry J. Lemley for a two-and-half-year delay in its desegregation plan. On June 21, Lemley granted the delay on the grounds that the city needed a cooling-off period after the clashes witnessed in September 1957. On Aug. 18, NAACP attorney Wiley Branton successfully had the delay overruled on appeal. School board attorneys then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Since the Court did not convene until Oct. 6, it could not hear the appeal until after the Little Rock schools opened, presumably on a segregated basis, in September.
On Aug. 25, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren announced that the court would meet in a special session Aug. 28 to hear the Little Rock case. On Sept. 12, the court ordered the school board to proceed with its desegregation plan. In the landmark ruling of Cooper v. Aaron, the court said that violence and disruption could not be used as an excuse for delaying school desegregation. If the court had allowed a delay, it would have signaled that mob rule could be used to stall the enforcement of federal laws. The federal government afterward indicated that it was prepared to support the opening of schools with the assistance of federal marshals if necessary. Everything appeared to be in place to ensure a smooth and orderly process of desegregation, in contrast to the scenes of lawlessness in 1957.
Gov. Orval Faubus had other plans. While desegregation was being debated in the courts, Faubus made his move. On Aug. 26, the governor presided over a special session of the Arkansas General Assembly that pushed through six bills providing him with sweeping powers to uphold segregation. One bill allowed Faubus to close any school ordered to desegregate by federal order. With the school closed, voters in the local school district would participate in a referendum to decide if the school should reopen or not. On the day that the court ordered desegregation to proceed, Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s public high schools. In the referendum held Sept. 27, the governor handily stacked the cards in his favor by providing a single choice between keeping the schools closed or accepting “complete and total integration.”
The morning after the referendum result, Faubus pressured the school board into leasing the public high schools to the Little Rock Private School Corp. (LRPSC) for private operation. NAACP attorneys won an injunction to stop this. Faubus then assisted the LRPSC in purchasing private buildings with public funds to operate as schools. That year, white students variously attended private segregated schools, schools in other Arkansas districts, out-of-state schools or took correspondence courses through the University of Arkansas. With access to fewer resources, black students were hit the hardest. Most attended classes in other Arkansas districts or went to an out-of-state school. Some took a correspondence course offered by L.M. Christophe, the principal of the black Horace Mann High School. The state retained both white and black teachers on full pay to preside over empty classrooms in closed schools. The only thing that took place in public high schools that year was Central High’s football program, which was apparently the single part of its educational services that the city felt it could not survive without.
Faubus reaped the political benefits of school closing. In November 1958, he became only the second governor in Arkansas history to win a third consecutive term in office. The leading segregationist voice in the state, Arkansas Association of White Citizens’ Council head Jim Johnson, won election to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In a shocking result, Little Rock segregationist and school board member Dale Alford defeated, as a write-in candidate, incumbent Congressman Brooks Hays, who had held the seat for 16 years. Meanwhile, all of the Little Rock School Board (except for Alford, who would soon leave to take up his role as congressman) resigned. As one of its final acts in office, the board voted to buy out the contract of school Superintendent Virgil Blossom, the architect of Little Rock’s school desegregation plan.
The election of a new school board proved a watershed event. At the school-closing referendum, a group of white women had formed the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC). At its helm was Adolphine Fletcher Terry, the wife of former Arkansas Congressman David D. Terry. Although unsuccessful in getting the schools opened, the WEC, itself segregated, remained an important lobbying force within the white community. At the school board election, Terry managed to persuade five candidates to represent business interests against attempts by segregationists to dominate the school board. In a closely contested election, a split ticket of three business candidates and three segregationists won.
The partial victory belatedly stirred Little Rock’s white businessmen to speak up about school desegregation. There was a rising awareness of the community damage being done. Teachers, unoccupied in empty classrooms, were leaving the public school system in droves. The education of the city’s students was being severely disrupted. And, of more pressing concern to the businessmen, the city’s economy was suffering badly. Not one new industry had chosen to locate in Little Rock since the events of September 1957. It was claimed that the negative headlines surrounding school desegregation had cost the city five new industrial plants that would have brought in $1 million in revenue and 300 new jobs.
E. Grainger Williams, the new president of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, questioned the wisdom of school closing in his inaugural speech on Jan. 14, 1959. Williams told the audience that, “no matter what our personal feelings might be,” the “time has come for us to evaluate … the cost of the lack of public education.” The politicians did not seem to care. The 1959 Arkansas General Assembly passed another 32 pro-segregation bills into law.
A showdown between the business community and committed segregationists in the city finally came in May 1959. At a meeting of the new school board May 5, segregationist members attempted to push through measures to remove anyone unsympathetic to their cause from the public school system. Blocking each of these measures, the school board members representing business interests then withdrew from the meeting to dissolve the quorum. However, after they left, Ed McKinley, the segregationist president of the school board, ruled that the meeting could continue as normal. Segregationists proceeded to make a series of arbitrary decisions about the running of the school system. Most dramatic of all was the decision not to renew the contracts of 44 public school employees, including seven principals, 34 teachers and three secretaries.
On May 8, a group of downtown business and civic leaders met to form a new organization, Stop This Outrageous Purge (STOP). The organization was dedicated to recalling the three segregationist school board members for election. On May 15, segregationists formed a Committee to Retain Our Segregated Schools (CROSS) to recall the business community representatives. On May 25, the day of the recall election, the vote narrowly went the businessmen’s way, with all the business representatives reinstated and all the segregationist candidates dismissed from the school board. The new board, taking the election as a mandate to reopen the schools, began preparations for token desegregation in September 1959 by assigning three black students to Central High and three to Hall High. On June 18, the U.S. District Court upheld the contention of NAACP attorneys that Arkansas’s school-closing laws were unconstitutional.
In a surprise move designed to stymie attempts by Faubus to prevent the schools from reopening, the school board announced in July that the school year would begin a month early, on Aug. 12. When the schools reopened as planned, three black students, Effie Jones, Elsie Robinson and Estella Thompson, peacefully entered Hall High under a city police guard. At the state Capitol, 1,000 whites attended a segregationist rally. Later, around 200 segregationists marched on Central High. City policemen firmly enforced order as two of the Little Rock Nine, Jefferson Thomas and Elizabeth Eckford, entered the school. Carlotta Walls, another of the Nine, and the third black student assigned to Central that year, had not yet returned from completing summer school in Chicago. For segregationists, the battle had been lost, and their struggle to retain strictly segregated public schools was finally over. The struggle to achieve the meaningful desegregation of the city’s schools, and to ensure equal access to a quality education for all of the city’s students, continued on, as it still does today.
John A. Kirk is the Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.