Briefing Room


School integration then and now

October 5, 2007 | Posts

Carlotta Walls was taught at a young age that a good education is the key to success.  The gifted teenager undoubtedly had no idea this principle, instilled by her parents, would lead to her becoming an icon in American civil rights history.

During the 1956-57 school year, the ninth grader attended Dunbar Junior High School in Little Rock, Ark., where she and her black classmates were taught by black teachers and black administrators in a segregated school.  In the same neighborhood, there was another school – Little Rock Central

High School.  Built in 1927 for $1.5 million, it was billed as “America’s most beautiful high school” by the American Institute of Architects and stretches two city blocks, is it up to five stories tall, and includes amenities considered lavish for a school built in the 1920s.

But the events that surrounded the “most beautiful high school” 50 years ago were far from delightful.  The unforgettable black-and-white photos of the protests and the armed guards remind us of the challenges that desegregation dealt our country.  The legal questions that were answered in the several months surrounding the Little Rock Nine continue to define today’s ongoing questions regarding the what role race places in school selection.  The U.S. Supreme Court decided in June another landmark case regarding the use of race in determining what schools students attend.  The matter – 50 years later – still has not faded as one of America’s most pressing social issues.

‘I Was Shocked’

“Dunbar was a great school with caring teachers who taught us well,” Walls said in a recent telephone interview from her Colorado home. “But they lacked the books, supplies, and support.”  Walls had been watching and waiting patiently for school desegregation to begin after closely following the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  “It was discussed at my home and in my church,” Walls said.  “It really was something celebrated in our community.”

Five days after the court decision, the Little Rock School Board began working on what started as a fairly aggressive desegregation plan for the district’s schools.  The state of Arkansas, however, had other ideas.  After Brown, Arkansas voters went to the polls and passed an interposition amendment to the Arkansas Constitution, which argued that the state did not have to follow federal court decisions if they interfered with state sovereignty.  This, coupled by the vagueness of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown II calling for desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” gave the segregationists an argument to drag their feet.  The Little Rock School Board’s final plan called for a gradual desegregation of schools, starting with Little Rock Central High School in the fall of 1957 – a plan often referred to as the “Blossom Plan” after school Superintendent Virgil Blossom.  The local branch of the NAACP brought suit in Aaron v. Cooper to force a broader and more expedient integration plan.  In 1956, the federal court upheld the plan, and the decision was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the spring of 1956, Walls sat in homeroom at Dunbar Junior High and her teacher asked which students lived in the Central High School boundary.  The teacher explained that any student that wanted to sign up to attend Central next year instead of Horace Mann, the all-black school, should sign a sheet that was passed around the room.

“There really was no solicitation or arm-twisting involved,” Walls said. “My parents had told me to be prepared to take any opportunity that was presented, and I passed Central High School everyday and knew I had a right to go there.”

More than 100 students requested to attend Central.  But after mandatory meetings with Superintendent Blossom and discussions in the community, only 18 volunteers remained by August 1957.  The 18 learned quickly that integrating a school was not going to be easy.  Blossom laid down rules: no sports, clubs, extracurriculars, or fighting back.  For Walls, a gifted athlete who played every sport available to women in junior high, it was a disappointment.

“Because I was going from junior high to high school, I knew I was going to have to prove myself all over again even if I went to the all-black high school,” Walls said. “I was going because I wanted to; my two best friends choose not to.  But, I didn’t then, and I don’t now, need a group of people to do anything.”

As students prepared for school in the summer of 1957, the segregationists prepared to delay desegregation.  Superintendent Blossom quietly worried about violence and Gov. Orval Faubus quietly worried about re-election.  While several Arkansas districts had already integrated, governors in Texas and Georgia had successfully blocked desegregation by using states’ rights arguments.  The federal government’s lackluster response to these events helped fuel the feelings of legitimacy for arguments that desegregation was unconstitutional.  Judge John E. Miller, who had decided Aaron v. Cooper, privately offered to delay desegregation if the school board would request it.  Blossom did not want a delay; he wanted security and a directive from the governor that integration would happen.  Frustrated by Blossom’s reluctance to ask for a delay in federal court, Gov. Faubus presented a case in state court using a mother from one of the recently created citizen action groups. In court, the mother and the governor stated they feared violence, but presented no evidence; the superintendent and principal claimed no threats of violence.  On Aug. 29, State Judge Murray Reed granted an injunction delaying the Blossom Plan because of the potential threat of violence.

The next day the school board and NAACP went back to federal court asking for an injunction barring the state court’s injunction.  To everyone’s surprise, Judge Miller stepped down from the case and Judge Ronald Davies, who had just arrived in Little Rock on temporary assignment from North Dakota, was assigned the case.  Judge Davies wrote a sweeping order throwing out the state court’s injunction and barring anyone from interfering with the start of desegregation at Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 3.

Throughout August, the 18 black students dropped to just nine.  On Sept. 2, Walls, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray, Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown, Melba Pattillo, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts, and Elizabeth Eckford waited anxiously for the first day of school like any other students. But, Monday night Gov. Faubus announced he was sending the Arkansas National Guard to the school to protect against violence.  The governor claimed the uncertainty of whether the Supreme Court ruling in Brown or the state’s interposition laws was the superior law was causing havoc and, as governor, he was first bound by Arkansas law.  The NAACP called Walls and the other students late that night and decided the Little Rock Nine would wait until Wednesday to start school.

The next day, the students were told to meet at the home of local NAACP leader Daisy Bates so they could go to school together. Eckford, however, did not get the message because her family did not have a phone.  Thousands of protestors stood outside the school chanting and yelling, flanked by the National Guard.

“My mom drove me to Mrs. Bates house, and I recognized several of the ministers from the community right away. I was excited. I felt safe.  It was time to walk up to the school and we did. As we approached the school, there was the Arkansas National Guard, standing shoulder to shoulder. The commanding officer came up to us and said they were there to keep us out. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked. I was just a 14-year-old who wanted to go to school.”

As eight of the black students, protected by hosts of community leaders, discussed the situation with the National Guard, the crowd caught glimpse of Eckford, who was approaching the school from the opposite block.  The situation that unfolded created one of the most lasting and vivid memories of the Civil Rights Movement – a young black girl, shoulders squared peering straight ahead with her eyes shaded by glasses surrounded by an angry white mob of hecklers with expressions of sheer hatred on their faces.  Eckford did not make it into the school that day either.

The school board appeared before Judge Davies on Sept. 5 asking for the first time that the Blossom Plan be delayed.  Judge Davies denied an injunction, and he asked the FBI and Justice Department to conduct an investigation of Gov. Faubus’ actions and set a hearing date for Sept. 20. The events of Sept. 4 had caught the attention of the national and world media; what had begun as a struggle between the Arkansas NAACP and local segregationists, now had turned into an international media frenzy.

The segregationists won a temporary victory as two more weeks went by and the Little Rock Nine still had not been inside Central High School.  Black teachers from the community tutored the students as they remained virtual prisoners in their houses because of the crowds that continued to flow into Little Rock.  Lawyers and community leaders prepped the students to testify in federal court, where the case would be argued by  Thurgood Marshall.

“I was in awe of Mr. Marshall,” Walls said.  “Here was this tall, articulate, black man being an ally for us.  He spoke in court with confidence and not holding tongue in hand to anyone.  I did not expect to see a black man to be able to say what he wanted to say in court without acquiescing.  I just sat and watched in amazement.”

Despite Marshall’s talent in the courtroom, during the lunch break, he still had to walk blocks with the Little Rock Nine to find a greasy burger joint that would serve blacks.  At the end of the day, Judge Davies granted the injunction and ordered the governor to remove the National Guard and allow the students to enter the school.

The court action fueled the segregationists, who continued to surround the school each day in protest. On Sept. 23, the students met at Daisy Bates’ house and quietly drove around Little Rock until they discreetly arrived at a side door of the school. The Little Rock Nine were quickly ushered in as crowds at the front of the building chanted and hollered.  The greeting was less than welcoming.  Students sneered, moved their seats, and yelled at the students. Some climbed out windows and ran to the crowds in front of the building.  The tension continued to rise as the students moved to their second classes.

“I was in geometry and all of a sudden the police came and got me,” Walls said. “I couldn’t believe it.  It was so frustrating.  Because my class was in the back of the building, I could not see the mob that had grown out front.”  The police took the Little Rock Nine to an underground garage in the building and loaded them into two police cars.  “That was probably the scariest day for me because it was so hush-hush, and they spirited us out of school,” Walls said.  “They told us to hide under a blanket, and the police officer driving was told to floor it and stop for no one.  We were told to stay hidden, but, of course, my 14-year-old curious mind just had to peek and there were just thousands of people rushing by.”

On Sept. 24, Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops.  The 101st Airborne swarmed into town that day and the president federalized the entire 10,000 member Arkansas National Guard, taking them out of control of the governor.  On Sept. 25, the Little Rock Nine spent their first full day in Central High School, escorted to and from school and class to class by the 101st Airborne.

“My reaction was that is was about time somebody did something,” Walls said. “It seemed very black and white to me – you’re the president of the United States, how could you let this little governor do this?”

The 101st Airborne could step in only during extreme circumstances.  The daily harassment regiment included tripping, spitting, pushing, name-calling, and worse.  The goal was simple: Make the Little Rock Nine so miserable that they would leave.  Most administrators and teachers had little interest in stepping in.  The harassment did not stop and, in December, Minnijean Brown finally retaliated in the lunchroom by dumping a bowl of chili on some white male students who were taunting her. She was suspended. Harassment efforts increased and, in January, Minnijean was expelled after a second incident.  Worse yet, the segregationists quickly learned that driving the Little Rock Nine to the point of retaliation was the trick to getting them out of the school.

“It really just became a job,” Walls said. “I got up, got ready, went to my job, tried to do well in class, focused on staying safe, did my homework, and started all over the next day. I had to stay above it mentally.  These people were just ignorant to me.”

Before the school year ended, the school board began a petition to delay integration the following school year because desegregation was so disruptive to the educational process.  Judge Davies had completed his temporary assignment and was back in North Dakota and Cooper v. Aaron was assigned to Judge Harry J. Lemley, a born and bred southerner who wrote about the history of the Confederacy in his spare time.  After a lengthy hearing in June, Judge Lemley granted the school district a 30-month delay in implementing its desegregation plan.  The judge refused to stay his order pending appeal because he believed a Supreme Court appeal would be impossible before the start of the school year in August.

The NAACP filed simultaneous appeals in the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court, which on the last day of its June session denied cert and directed the Eighth Circuit to handle the appeal.  On Aug. 18, 1958, the Eighth Circuit overturned the judgment and the school board immediately appealed.  The Supreme Court called an emergency session on Aug. 28 and scheduled full arguments two weeks later.  Even though the court had decided Brown just four years earlier, three new justices had been appointed to the court.  On Sept. 12, the Court announced a unanimous decision upholding the Eighth Circuit and requiring desegregation.

The celebration, however, was short-lived.  The next day Gov. Faubus announced Little Rock schools would be closed for the entire school year.  The school board tried leasing the schools to private companies, but the federal courts vetoed that move and, despite court orders to open, the schools remained closed for the entire school year.  In June, the federal courts finally decided that closing the schools was unconstitutional. A new school board quietly opened schools in early August – two weeks before the scheduled start date.  Only Walls and Thomas remained from the Little Rock Nine, and they headed back to school.

“There were still a lot of people content on making it difficult for us, but there was no National Guard this time and we had to rely on the teachers more,” Walls said.  “We had to protect ourselves more. But, at the same time, no one wanted the schools closed again.”

In May 1960, Walls became the only female member of the Little Rock Nine to graduate and receive her diploma.

She and her family left Little Rock the next day.  She finished a remaining credit while in St. Louis over the summer and then headed to Michigan State University. She later moved to Colorado and founded LaNier and Company, a real estate brokerage company. Walls and the Little Rock Nine have received numerous awards and recognitions, including the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1958, and the nation’s highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Integration Today

In the 50 years since Little Rock, the Supreme Court has reviewed dozens of school desegregation cases.  While school desegregation started in the South, it quickly moved to the northern states.  In Columbus, for example, the district was never officially segregated, but inconsistent and irregular school assignment boundaries led to schools that were more than 95 percent one race or another.  Between 1964 and 1988, federal courts followed a general pattern of mandating integration and many experts mark 1985 as the year that American schools as a whole were the most integrated.  However, since that time, the Supreme Court has slowly begun to pull the pendulum back the other way.  As schools are released from mandatory desegregation orders and abandon voluntary programs, schools are starting to re-segregate at an alarming rate.  According to the NAACP, students are most likely to be segregated in California, New York, Michigan, Illinois, and Maryland, and least likely to be segregated in Kentucky, Washington, Kansas, Nebraska, and Delaware.  In California, for example, only 13.5 percent of black students attend a majority white school.  In Ohio, which is the 14th most segregated state according to the NAACP, 29.8 percent of black students attend a majority white school.

In June 2007, the Supreme Court issued opinions in two school desegregation cases. The Court, voting 5-4, found voluntary integration programs in Louisville and Seattle unconstitutional.

“The real worry is that schools will say we want to have an integration plan, but we don’t want to get sued,” said Daniel P. Tokaji, an associate professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.  “It is difficult to tell from this opinion where the law stands.  There is not a clear, defined safe harbor like we would like.”

According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State, more than 1,000 school districts nationwide use race as a factor in assigning students to schools.  In the Supreme Court decision, Chief Justice Roberts, along with Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas made it clear that no plan that uses race as a factor is acceptable.  Justice Kennedy joined the majority in finding the plans unconstitutional, but wrote his own opinion.  Justice Stevens wrote a scathing dissent in which he called the court to task for basically rewriting the Brown decision and forgetting what Brown was really about and the circumstances under which is was decided.  He chastised Chief Justice Roberts for relying on Brown to argue white children can sue when classified by race.  Justice Breyer spoke from the bench during the reading of the opinion and said “that it is not often in the law that so few have changed so much.”

“This issue is not over,” said john a. powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute.  “The Court is divided, not just divided, but very divided. When the Court announced its ruling, the justices were essentially yelling at each other.  This is a very fractured opinion.”

But, for now, it is Justice Kennedy’s opinion that rules.  He accepts the idea that there is a compelling government interest in integrating schools, even if the original segregation was de facto, or unintentional, as in Seattle’s case.  But, he says the Louisville and Seattle programs reviewed were not narrowly tailored enough.

“I admit that I read Justice Kennedy’s opinion with skepticism,” said Ruth Colker, the Heck Faust Chair in Constitutional Law at Moritz.  “I wonder if any plan would pass muster and whether this was just rhetoric because he does not want his legacy to be the justice who got rid of voluntary integration.”

The Kirwan Institute is working with school districts, including those in Louisville and Seattle, to develop integration plans aimed at meeting the new Kennedy standard.

“We have to address racial isolation,” powell said. “Some school districts will be able to achieve integration using other factors like geography, test scores, income, and poverty, and some will not. The question is what if a school district has tried every other available option and there is still racial isolation, can they then use race? I don’t think Justice Kennedy has slammed the door shut.”