John Aaron Jr.

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My friend Sybil Hampton alerts me to a name of historical note mentioned briefly in the obituaries in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. — retired Army Maj. John Aaron Jr., who died in Indianapolis at 96.

His family name is attached to one of the most significant events in Little Rock’s history. It was an event of national importance as well.

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He was the father of John and Thelma Aaron, two of 33 children who sued in federal court in 1956 to desegregate Little Rock public schools. The suit was titled Aaron v. Cooper (the School Board president). The Aaron children, now deceased, were listed first among plaintiff children because of the alphabet.

The Central crisis ensued and federal troops were deployed to protect the Little Rock Nine when they entered high school. Resistance continued and the Little Rock School Board asked to delay an integration plan because of the unrest. As the Encyclopedia of Arkansas recounts a 1958 U.S. Supreme Court decision:

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On September 29, the Court issued a unanimous, per curiam opinion under the name of Cooper v. Aaron, since the school district had appealed the Eighth Circuit ruling. The Court related the sequence of events that had occurred in Little Rock and placed responsibility for the “unfortunate and distressing sequence of events” on the actions of legislators and executive officials resisting the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education, which in turn brought about “violent resistance to that decision in Arkansas.” The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution requires states to provide the equal protection of the law to all persons. The Court refused to sacrifice the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs to “the violence and disorder which have followed upon the actions of the Governor and Legislature,” pointing out that no state elected official can “war against the Constitution” without violating his or her oath to support it. Nor could state officials nullify school children’s rights indirectly through “evasive schemes.” Justice Felix Frankfurter issued a concurring opinion, warning of the lawlessness and anarchy that would result if governments refused to uphold the law in the face of public resistance, and expressing optimism that over time “local customs” would change.

That didn’t end the case. Gov. Orval Faubus forced the closure of schools in 1958-59 and a half-century of desegregation  litigation ensued. But the Aaron case became a landmark.

From the Encyclopedia of Arkansas again:

The Court’s unanimous decision signaled to states that were trying to ignore or evade Brown v. Board of Education that the federal courts would not tolerate state refusal to obey the Fourteenth Amendment. Unfortunately, Aaron v. Cooper was not the last school desegregation case, and the pace of integration has been slower than any of the justices at the time could have foretold.

Question of the moment: Would a Supreme Court with three Trump justices, Thomas, Alito and Roberts produce a unanimous decision for school desegregation in a violently opposed red state?

Note: Major Aaron led an interesting life. He was a graduate of Dunbar High School and a registered operating room nurse. He was a Merchant Marine, then joined the Army and served in both World War II and Vietnam, according to his Indianapolis obituary. His funeral will be Friday at Ruffin and Jarrett, with burial in the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery.

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