On May 7, 1955, Little Rock civil rights activist Ozell Sutton penned an article for the Chicago Defender, perhaps the nation’s most important Black newspaper at the time, boasting of his state’s progress in ending racial segregation. Entitled “Arkansas Leads In Integration,” the piece quoted an unnamed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People field representative calling the state “the bright spot of the South” in terms of implementing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision prohibiting state-mandated school segregation.
The tragic irony of Sutton’s boast is not lost on those who have paid attention to our state’s history. Only 28 months later, the crisis at Little Rock’s Central High transformed Arkansas into the poster child for massive resistance to school integration. News broadcasts around the globe showed Orval Faubus, Arkansas’s wildly popular governor, siding with thugs and bigots rather than with the nine Black students who comported themselves with staggering amounts of dignity. These images continue to define the state.
When looking for that point at which the progress described by Sutton ended and the descent into the ugliness at Central High began, nothing stands out as much as U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright and the rest of Arkansas’s congressional delegation’s signing of the Southern Manifesto on March 12, 1956. Grounded in an interpretation of the Constitution that gutted the 14th Amendment, especially its equal protection clause, the Manifesto declared the Brown decision to be a “clear abuse of judicial power” and encouraged states and their citizens to resist its mandates.
Fulbright’s apologists like to claim that the senator’s sins during the Central High crisis were ones of omission rather than commission — that he played no significant role in stoking segregationist outrage, but rather simply did little to stop it. But they are wrong. As an author and signatory of the Southern Manifesto, Fulbright provided a false cover of legitimacy to segregationists and emboldened them to defy the Brown decision.
The constitutional interpretation put forth in the Southern Manifesto contradicted the state’s official position that the Brown decision was correct and must be complied with, a position that had undergirded much of the progress described by Sutton. At the time Fulbright signed the Manifesto, polls showed that most white Arkansans disliked the Brown decision and with it the prospects of racial integration, but the state’s nascent segregationist movement had made little progress and attracted only a few followers. Most white Arkansans, it seems, were unwilling to fight integration or doubted that such a fight could be successful. But the Manifesto changed that. By signing, Fulbright and the rest of the state’s delegation — the most powerful and respected leaders in the state — provided the false hope that convinced the protestors that they could prevent the integration of Central High.
Governor Francis Cherry signaled Arkansas’s acceptance of the Brown decision just a day after the Supreme Court’s ruling. He simply declared, “Arkansas will observe the law. It always has.” Likewise, the speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives did not sound happy with the decision, but said, “We’ve got to live with it. We might as well do what we have to do with as little fuss and as much thought as possible.” Arkansas Attorney General Thomas Jefferson Gentry gave a stern warning to a group of East Arkansas leaders: “Desegregation has been declared the law of the land and we are going to have to abide by it.” Both Cherry and Gentry turned down invitations to meetings organized by counterparts in other parts of the South to devise strategies to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision.
Given the widespread acceptance of the Brown decision’s legitimacy, it is not surprising that Arkansas was the first state of the former Confederacy to witness school districts desegregating. In July 1954, Charleston’s school board unanimously decided to “disband the Colored School and admit the Colored children into the grade and high school” and when classes started on August 23 there was hardly a ripple of unrest. The following week, when Fayetteville High School integrated, the national praise the district received drowned out the single man with a sign who showed up to protest.
Attorney General Gentry more fully articulated the state’s official acceptance of Brown that autumn in a brief filed for the Brown II hearings held to allow the court to hear from southern states about implementing the first Brown decision. The Arkansas brief began by emphasizing “that nothing contained in this brief is intended to bring into question the correctness of the [Brown] ruling.” In accepting the idea that racial segregation laws violated the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause, Gentry stood alone among the attorneys general from former Confederate states, most of them submitting briefs that anticipated the ideas that would find their way into the Southern Manifesto the following year. Gentry did ask, though, that the court allow Arkansas and other states to abolish segregation gradually.
Gentry’s brief provided the rationale for the integration of Arkansas’s public undergraduate institutions. Responding to a request from the college presidents for legal advice about how to respond if Black students requested admission, the attorney general explained in the summer of 1955 that Brown’s prohibition of segregation in “public education” applied to state-supported colleges and universities, invalidated the state law mandating segregation at their institutions, and required them to treat black and white students equally. He added that, if schools did deny admission to students on the basis of race, his office would not defend them in court.
A few of the college presidents greeted Gentry’s opinion with enthusiasm, giving them political and legal cover to proceed with integration. Arkansas State’s Carl Reng — who had earlier helped integrate graduate programs at the University of Arkansas — announced, “We are going to cooperate wholeheartedly with the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision.” When the fall 1955 term began, Arkansas Tech and Henderson State joined Arkansas State in enrolling their first Black students and the University of Arkansas accepted its first Black undergraduate since the 1870s (there is no evidence that Black applicants were turned away at the other campuses). While these first Black undergraduates faced harassment, there were no organized protests or vocal opposition.
The start of the 1955 school year witnessed the peaceful integration of more Northwest Arkansas districts with a few Black students, but most of the attention focused on the contentious yet successful integration of Hoxie schools. The conflict witnessed school board members committed to doing “right in the sight of God” prevail over an organized opposition determined to prevent Black children from attending the same schools as White ones. As University of Arkansas at Little Rock historian John Kirk has noted, “The Hoxie episode demonstrated how a resilient and determined local leadership, aided by the courts, could implement desegregation.”
The relatively successful Brown-driven school integration efforts encouraged the dropping of the color-line elsewhere in public life. This was most clearly seen in Little Rock, where Mayor Woodrow Mann — elected in November 1955 with Gentry’s backing — desegregated the drinking fountains at City Hall, appointed Blacks to previously all-white municipal boards, and led the effort to charter greater Little Rock’s new bus company, which hit the streets on March 2, 1956, without the infamous signs directing black passengers to the rear. As with the integration of the colleges, very few people made a fuss about the changes in Little Rock, which occurred at the very time Fulbright and the rest of the state’s delegation were deciding whether to sign the Manifesto.
So, while there were certainly vocal pockets of segregationist agitation like those seen in Hoxie, there was no potent statewide segregationist movement when Fulbright crafted the Southern Manifesto. He and other so-called moderates later claimed they had signed the Manifesto because the people of Arkansas demanded it, but that simply was not the case. Polling data from the time shows most white Arkansans preferred to maintain segregated schools. But the early progress toward integration and the anemic state of the segregationist movement suggests that, before March 1956, they generally accepted the Brown decision as legitimate and realized they would eventually have to obey the law.
But Fulbright and Arkansas’s seven other signers of the Southern Manifesto endorsed the myth that legitimized the massive resistance efforts that would culminate on the streets outside of Central High — namely, that the Brown decision was illegitimate, and states and their citizens could and should prevent its implementation.
In her coverage of the signing of the Southern Manifesto, Arkansas Gazette Washington, D.C., correspondent Liz Carpenter made it clear that the signers were playing with fire and that others had warned them. She quoted several of the 31 southern legislators who refused to sign (two from Florida, four from North Carolina, seven from Tennessee, 18 from Texas). One unnamed legislator worried that his colleagues were being short-sighted — concerned only with their immediate popularity and willing to ignore the “long-term liability.” Harold Cooley, who represented North Carolina’s Fourth District from 1934 until 1966, was blunter. He called the Manifesto a “dangerous document” that “holds out the false hope that legal means are available for upsetting the Supreme Court ban [on school segregation].” Carpenter concluded by wondering if the short-term benefits accrued to the signers would be outweighed by long-term damage.
Just days after Fulbright and his compatriots signed the Southern Manifesto, the state’s most rabid segregationists held a rally in Jacksonville that demonstrated how they would use the Manifesto to help energize their crusade. Rally organizers expected a huge turnout from across the state, securing a centrally located venue that could accommodate a crowd of 5,000, but reporters counted just 87 people at the start of the proceedings. A few more would straggle in. The poor attendance, though, did little to dampen the excitement over the just signed Southern Manifesto. After a series of speeches, one of which demanded that Arkansas’s Blacks be confined to a special reservation, Little Rock’s most prominent segregationist, Amis Guthridge, explained why the Manifesto was a game changer: “We are not going to have trouble with public office holders.”
In the following months, the segregationist movement expanded by leaps and bounds as white Arkansans bought into the myth endorsed by Fulbright that the Brown ruling (and U.S. Constitution) could be resisted. The two main gubernatorial candidates in the summer of 1956 — incumbent Orval Faubus and challenger Jim Johnson — made this myth central to their campaigns. Johnson travelled the state promising white Arkansans that they could protect themselves by ratifying his proposed state constitutional amendment that nullified what he called the Supreme Court’s unconstitutional desegregation decisions. Not to be outdone, Faubus promised that no Arkansas school district would be forced to integrate by the federal courts, and his supporters arranged to have an interposition measure put on the general election ballot. Both segregationist proposals easily passed, a sign that the conversation among white Arkansans had shifted from “How do we best follow a legitimate court decision that we don’t particularly like?” to “How do we fight an illegitimate court decision?”
Scores of Arkansas politicians — some true believers and others seeking political gain — stoked the anger of those who ringed Central High School to stop the nine Black students. The belief that the Supreme Court had abused its authority and the false hope that its ruling could be defied animated the mob that terrorized the Little Rock Nine and prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to call in the 101st Airborne.
Cambridge University historian Anthony Badger suggests that Fulbright would not have faced any serious challenge to his reelection in 1956 even had he refused to sign the Southern Manifesto. The senator had the support of the state’s political kingmaker, Witt Stephens. Potential segregationist challenger Ben Laney was a dreadful politician who had lost his last statewide election in a landslide. Fulbright signed the Manifesto, Badger concludes, because he was racist. This interpretation aligns with that of Fulbright’s most respected biographer, the University of Arkansas’s Randall Woods. Woods makes clear that Fulbright did not see Black Arkansans as truly equal to their White counterparts and wanted to prevent school integration. Over the course of his Senate career, Fulbright would vote against other measures designed to promote Black rights, including postwar Fair Employment Practices legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the 24th Amendment (abolition of the poll tax for federal elections), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
One of the most enduring myths in Arkansas’s history is that J. William Fulbright was a racial moderate and that his signing of the Southern Manifesto was a political necessity. To make these claims, Fulbright’s apologists have to ignore the progress described by Ozell Sutton and ignore the way in which the Manifesto gave credence to a fledgling movement to resist desegregation. Excusing Fulbright’s defiance of the Supreme Court erases the legacies of true racial moderates, men like Carl Reng, Tom Gentry, and those who served on the Hoxie school board.
Michael Pierce, an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas, is working on a book manuscript about the rise and fall of New Deal/Great Society liberalism in Arkansas. His essays have appeared in the Journal of Southern History, Agricultural History, Arkansas Historical Quarterly, and numerous edited volumes.