Seventy years ago this month, on June 19, 1945, Sue Cowan Morris won her legal battle for the equalization of black and white teachers’ salaries in the Little Rock School District. The lawsuit ended a longstanding policy of pay discrimination against black teachers and laid the foundations for later struggles for black educational equality in the city. It also cost Morris and other educators their jobs for insisting upon justice.
Teacher salary equalization suits provided some of the earliest legal victories for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its pursuit of educational equality in the courts. They helped launch the career of young attorney Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 was appointed as the United States’ first black Supreme Court justice. Marshall, whose mother was a teacher, had first-hand experiences of the inequalities black educators suffered. Starting in his home state of Maryland, Marshall won court victories for pay equalization that then began to spread to the South.
Little Rock’s black teachers, who as elsewhere were mostly women, monitored the cases with interest. In 1941, the 86 teachers that taught in Little Rock’s black public schools all belonged to the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association (CTA), which coordinated the campaign for the salary equalization suit. The CTA formed a Salary Adjustment Committee (SAC) to investigate the facts. The SAC’s study discovered that white elementary school teachers in Little Rock received an average annual salary of $526, while black elementary school teachers received only $331. White high school teachers received an annual salary of $856, while black high school teachers received only $567. This was despite the fact that both white and black teachers did the same work in the same public school system.
Black teachers drew up a petition for the equalization of salaries and presented it to the recently appointed Little Rock Superintendent of Schools Russell T. Scobee. He passed the petition on to the Little Rock School Board, which chose to table the matter indefinitely. In fact, over the summer, unequal pay raises administered by the school district only increased the pay disparity between black and white teachers. Black teachers began to contribute to a fund for a salary equalization suit and retained local lawyers in preparation for the case. They also contacted NAACP headquarters, and Thurgood Marshall agreed to assist.
Marshall studied the qualifications of CTA members and drew up a short list of possible candidates to head the lawsuit. The person finally chosen was Sue Cowan Morris, head of the English Department at Dunbar High School and a local NAACP branch member. Morris had impeccable credentials. Born in 1910 in the small town of Eudora, in South Arkansas, her parents were both schoolteachers. She attended some of the best schools open to black students at the time, including Spelman College in Atlanta and Talladega College in Alabama. Morris started teaching at Dunbar in 1935. During the summer of 1941, she attended a graduate program at the University of Chicago and made straight A’s on the course “Methods of Teaching English.”
On Feb. 28, 1942, federal Judge Thomas C. Trimble heard preliminary arguments in the CTA lawsuit. The CTA alleged that the school district had, “consistently pursued and maintained a policy, custom and usage of paying colored teachers and principals less salary than white teachers.” This violated 14th Amendment rights to equal protection and due process under the law. Attorneys for the school district disagreed. They denied that racial discrimination existed in the district’s policy on teachers’ pay. Rather, they claimed, the criteria that the district used to determine salaries was not based on race but upon a wide range of factors, including “special training, ability, character, experiences, duties, services and accomplishments” of teachers.
It was 19 months before the case came to trial. When the hearing was finally held between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2, 1943, Marshall told the court that the school district employed only white supervisors to observe black teachers, to advise them with their work, to assist them in improving their teaching methods and to report back to the schools superintendent with observations and suggestions for improvement. The supervisors rated teachers against certain qualifications and abilities laid out on a merit ratings sheet. These were then used in determining teachers’ salaries.
Principal of Dunbar High, John H. Lewis, testified that in his opinion Morris, “ought to be a Group 1 [highly rated] teacher.” Lewis held a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, a divinity degree from Yale, and had done graduate work at the University of California. He was a former president of Morris Brown College in Atlanta and he was a qualified expert on rating teachers. By contrast, Charles R. Hamilton, principal of the white Garland High School, who was in charge of setting salary rates at Dunbar, only held a bachelor’s degree. Hamilton admitted to the court that he based his judgments on salary ratings on only “three or four” visits to Dunbar every year.
Nevertheless, the school district’s attorneys from Little Rock’s Rose Law Firm hammered on the argument that their clients judged teachers not by the color of their skin, but rather on a transparent merit-based system. They produced a merit ratings sheet for 1941 that purported to demonstrate that all black teachers in the district were, in Marshall’s words, “lousy.” Next, Annie Giffey, the white supervisor of primary teachers in Little Rock, took the stand. In a blatant assertion of white teachers’ racial superiority she testified that “regardless of college degrees and teaching experience no white teacher in Little Rock is inferior to the best Negro teacher.”
While Trimble deliberated over his ruling, black educators in Little Rock discovered that school officials were prepared to take the fight beyond the courtroom. At the end of the school year, the school district refused to rehire Morris. “I was not rehired because I had filed that suit,” she later reflected. “But that was never put in writing. The letter stated that I would have no further contract. It never said why.” After spending a brief time teaching at Arkansas AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), Morris moved back to Little Rock and worked testing ammunition at the Arkansas Ordnance Plant in Jacksonville. At the end of World War II, when the plant closed, she took up a post teaching English at Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock.
Lewis, the principal of Dunbar High, also left his job. In a letter of resignation to the superintendent of schools, Lewis stated that it was the “definite dissatisfaction” shown over his part in the teachers’ salary suit that had forced him to leave his post. “I definitely told them that if they did not want me, I did not want them and if I was called as a witness a thousand times I would take the same position,” Lewis wrote Thurgood Marshall. Lewis was appointed president of Shorter College in North Little Rock. Shortly afterward, John H. Gipson, head of the CTA and a teacher at Dunbar, left his job and joined Lewis at Shorter.
When Judge Trimble finally announced his verdict on Jan. 5, 1944, it was, as Marshall had suspected it would be, in favor of the school district. However, Morris and her attorneys were successful in overturning Trimble’s decision before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis. On June 19, 1945, the appeals court reversed Trimble’s ruling and declared that, “very substantial inequalities have existed between the salaries paid to colored teachers and those paid to white teachers and that such inequalities have continued over a period of years.”
Despite the victory, the case had its limitations. In line with other Southern school districts, Little Rock eventually adopted the National Teacher Examination that provided a standardized and allegedly objective test to legitimize continuing black and white teachers’ unequal pay. The decision in the Morris case affected only the salaries of Little Rock teachers and not those of other black teachers in the state who faced even worse pay discrimination.
But the teachers’ salary suit did have a profound impact in other ways. Importantly, it helped to forge links between local black activists and the NAACP. Thurgood Marshall’s presence in Little Rock enthused and energized the black population. “He sure did shoot them some straight dope as to their part and membership to be played in the NAACP cause,” reported Little Rock NAACP branch secretary H.L. Porter about one meeting that Marshall attended. “Then and there at that meeting we collected $68.50 in membership … Little Rock is ‘agog’ over him.”
In response to this rising local interest, the national NAACP headquarters began to show more interest in organizing Arkansas. In 1945, an Arkansas State Conference of NAACP Branches (ASC) was founded. In 1952, Daisy Bates, who along with her husband, L.C. Bates, co-owned the Arkansas State Press newspaper, was elected ASC president. Soon after Bates’ election the paths of local black activists and the national NAACP crossed again. After the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education school desegregation decision, Bates spearheaded state and local efforts to implement it, culminating in the 1957 Little Rock school crisis. There were other direct links between the earlier teachers’ salary suit and the school crisis. The mother and the aunt of one of the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green, were both teachers and had both been involved in the teachers’ salary equalization case.
Sue Morris married Little Rock pastor Rev. Booker T. Williams in 1946, after which she became Sue Cowan Williams. She was rehired at Dunbar in 1952 after Dr. Leroy M. Christophe, who was appointed Dunbar’s principal in 1945, continually pestered the school district to reappoint her. The school district first demanded an apology from Williams for filing the salary equalization suit. Superintendent of Schools Harry Little called Williams “and asked me if I had learned my lesson.” She reluctantly admitted that she had — “The lesson was not to file suits and — you know, don’t do that anymore” — in order to pursue her vocation as a teacher.
When Horace Mann High was built and opened as a segregated school in Little Rock in 1956, involving staffing changes at Dunbar, Williams was promoted to her old position as chair of the English Department. She held that position until she retired from the school in 1974. After her retirement from Dunbar, Williams taught at Arkansas Baptist College and worked part time for the Little Rock School District in the reading-testing program for elementary students. She died in 1994. In 1997, the 10th library in the Central Arkansas Library System, which serves the Dunbar area, was dedicated as the Sue Cowan Williams Library in her honor.
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and Department Chair at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.