Desegregation in Little Rock

 One year after the incidents at Mansfield, Sturgis, Clinton, and Poolesville, the desegregation of public schools faced another challenge.  This time the scene was Little Rock, Arkansas.  Mansfield in 1956 and Little Rock in 1957 shared the similarities of violence and strong opposition to new laws after the Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education and deemed segregated public schools unconstitutional.  This decision overturned the 1896 decision of Plessey v. Ferguson, which made “separate but equal” legal and allowed school districts to have separate public schools for African Americans and whites.  Mansfield in the days leading up to the 1956 school year became a very hostile place for African Americans.  On the high school grounds in Mansfield, African Americans were met with effigies, hostile mobs, and violent signs that expressed stern opposition among local whites to the potential integration of the public schools.  White residents of Mansfield, as well as across much of Texas, strongly opposed the Brown decision.  Governor Alan Shivers, keen on seeing a slower process of desegregation, called upon the Texas Rangers to keep Mansfield High from integrating, which directly violated the decision of the Supreme Court and escalated the situation within Mansfield.  The events in Mansfield would later parallel the events in Little Rock, Arkansas’ Central High School integration a year later in 1957.  But Mansfield did not integrate until 1965, while Little Rock desegregated in 1957.  An examination of the actions of the action of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in response to the actions of the governors of Texas and Arkansas provides insight into why one town integrated and the other did not.

Texas Governor Alan Shivers opposed the integration of his state’s schools as did Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas.  In fact during the crisis in Little Rock, the Citizens Council President Robert Ewing Brown wrote an open letter to Faubus reminding him of how Shivers and the Texas Rangers had handled the very same crisis in Mansfield a year earlier.  He urged Faubus to do the same.  Governor Faubus went along with these plans and called in the National Guard to block the nine African American students who enrolled for the 1957 school year.  After Faubus made this decision, the mayor of Little Rock wrote President Eisenhower to intervene in the situation that unfolded in 1957.  

President Eisenhower affected the outcomes in both Mansfield and Little Rock with decisions to intervene in Little Rock but stay neutral in Mansfield.  During the Little Rock crisis Eisenhower’s neutrality to the approaching storm of African American civil rights began to crumble.  After Governor Faubus’s decision to call in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the black students from attending the high school, the mayor of Little Rock, Woodrow Wilson Mann, wrote to President Eisenhower asking him to intervene.  Eisenhower used his authority to send troops from the 101st Airborne Division to control the crisis and escort the nine African American students into the school.  Eisenhower also federalized the 10,000 member National Guard in Arkansas, making Faubus powerless over his own state troops.

Thus, Eisenhower’s decision to intervene in Little Rock and not intervene in Mansfield led to the successful integration of Central High School while Mansfield High remained segregated until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.  Both states had governors who opposed integration of public schools.  But Eisenhower’s action in Little Rock and inaction in Mansfield and the results of these decisions provided precedent for the need for federal intervention to ensure equality. 

Despite the successful integration of public schools in places like Poolesville, Sturgis, Clinton, and Little Rock, many areas in the South were still segregated in the early 1960s.  New Orleans, for example, erupted in violence in 1960 when the school board decided to stop challenging the federal order and integrated its schools. In the fall of that year, when schools were integrating students from the 9th ward, one of the poorest sections of the city, riots broke out over the integration of four African American girls into the previously all-white school. White parents pulled their children from public schools and transferred them into private schools. This event garnered national attention, causing backlash from the country. The governor eventually sent in the National Guard, but the damage had already run its course. The public opinion over the situation in New Orleans was negative and New Orleans did not integrate until 1964.

Another aspect of school desegregation worth examining was the tactics of segregationists to prevent or delay integration of public schools.  One tactic was forming a crowd or mob to intimidate African American students and physically prevent them from entering the school.  In virtually every incident, including Mansfield, white segregationists began their opposition to integration this way.  Boycotting classes was another common tactic.  In Clinton, Sturgis, and Poolesville, white parents kept their children out of school, or the white students left when African Americans left entered the school.  Shutting down the public school system was also an option.  One district in Virginia, for instance, completely shut down its public schools.  North Carolina considered closing all public schools and using the money to pay for the private education of its white students.  Mansfield segregationists did not have resort to boycotting classes or shutting down the school, because the mob effectively prevented the integration of the high school.  Thus Mansfield High School did not desegregate until 1965, after the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.