Sixty years ago, on April 25, 1956, segregation came to an end on Little Rock and North Little Rock buses not with a bang but with a whimper. A case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court two days earlier was widely reported in the national press as outlawing bus segregation. The Citizens Coach Co., which ran buses in the two cities, decided to desegregate in compliance with the law. It soon became apparent, however, that the court ruling had not in fact ordered the end of segregation on buses at all. But since no one seemed to mind and no problems arose, the bus company continued to allow black and white passengers to ride together anyway.
The new policy reversed over half a century of enforced segregation in public transportation. The Streetcar Segregation Act of 1903 had first mandated separate sections for blacks and whites on streetcars in Arkansas. Blacks were required to sit in a section at the back of the streetcar and whites in a section at the front. This was a compromise version of a bill that had initially demanded entirely separate coaches for black and white passengers. The law echoed segregation laws being passed in other Southern states that targeted not only streetcars, but a wide range of other public facilities as well.
Blacks across the South opposed Jim Crow laws. Even as the streetcar bill was being debated in the Arkansas General Assembly, blacks in Little Rock held a mass meeting at First Baptist Church in protest. When the bill became law, the black communities in Little Rock, Pine Bluff and Hot Springs all organized boycotts that resulted in up to 90 percent of black patrons refusing to ride segregated streetcars.
Whites were not particularly enamored of the new arrangements either: They could not sit where they wanted, getting on and off took longer, and a new burden was placed on streetcar drivers and city policemen to enforce the law.
Nevertheless, segregation quickly became the norm. Blacks lacked the political power to influence policy since disfranchisement measures accompanied Jim Crow laws. The federal government and much of the rest of white America were unconcerned about civil rights protections. White Southerners were persuaded that segregation was essential to maintaining white supremacy.
A new wave of popular protest against segregation in public transportation emerged during World War II and after. The black press encouraged a fight for what the Pittsburgh Courier labeled the “Double V,” a victory abroad against fascism and a victory at home against racism. Jostling and shoving on city buses between blacks and whites became a direct physical contest for the ownership of public space. A more sympathetic federal government, led by northern Democrats that increasingly relied on burgeoning black votes in northern cities, began to roll back discriminatory laws. In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Morgan v. Virginia outlawed segregation on interstate buses, using the federal power outlined in the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to override state segregation laws.
The case that led to bus desegregation in Arkansas originated in June 1954 in Columbia, S.C., when Sarah Mae Flemming was ejected from a bus and assaulted by a bus driver for inadvertently sitting in the whites-only section. Coming just a month after the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, Flemming and her attorneys sought to end segregation on buses, too. The case finally made it to the U.S. Supreme Court on April 23, 1956. The Court remanded the case back to the lower courts on a technicality, but the wording of the decision was such that many believed it had actually ordered an end to segregation on buses. National newspapers widely reported this to be the case. A number of upper South cities took the initiative to desegregate soon after, Little Rock and North Little Rock among them.
A couple of days after the court ruling, a secret meeting was held between city officials and Citizens Coach Co. representatives. Mayor Almon C. Perry and Police Chief Jack Pyle represented North Little Rock; Mayor Woodrow Mann, Aldermen J.W. Horner, Ray Winder, Arthur K. Spatz and City Attorney O. D. Longstreth Jr. represented Little Rock; and executive vice president David S. Durbin and attorney William Nash represented the bus company. Nash informed the group that he had spoken with the bus company’s president, Fred Worden, in Des Moines, Iowa, the previous day and that Worden expected the company “to comply with the law.”
Efforts to get the mayors of the two cities to issue a statement saying they supported the change were unsuccessful, although both agreed not to stand in the way. There were no city ordinances that demanded bus segregation. The 1903 state law that covered streetcars was presumed to also cover buses. That law placed responsibility for enforcement on the driver of the vehicle and threatened them with arrest for noncompliance. North Little Rock Mayor Perry simply stated, “This is a transit problem and not a problem for the city to work out. It isn’t the city’s place to take any official action now.”
For the bus company, desegregation was straightforward enough. Their latest buses came from Detroit and had no segregation signs on them. The bus company had never told drivers to enforce segregation, so no new policy was needed. That left it to city police to arrest drivers under state law. Both city mayors said that the city police would “pay no attention” to the change. The same day, a number of blacks asserted their new right to ride at the front of the bus, although through custom and force of habit most whites still sat at the front and most blacks still sat at the back. The bus company reported “no incident or any kind of disturbance.” Nor were any reported in subsequent days. Just like that, over 50 years of enforced segregation in public transportation came to an end.
Daisy Bates, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Arkansas State Conference of branches, expressed delight at the outcome, saying, “The people of Greater Little Rock will accept this step as another milestone in our march forward to a greater and friendlier community from which the ‘sins of the caste’ are being removed.” Two months earlier, Bates had spearheaded a lawsuit to speed the desegregation of Little Rock schools.
In November 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ordered an end to segregation on city buses in a case arising from the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala., and a bus boycott that followed there. Undoubtedly, the Montgomery bus boycott, already into its fifth month when Little Rock desegregated its buses, had an impact on events in Arkansas. The strife and upheaval of the boycott in Montgomery gave added impetus to other city bus lines to avoid a similar confrontation by taking the initiative to desegregate. By the time the decision came down in that case, Little Rock and North Little Rock buses were already in compliance with the law. Most other Arkansas towns and cities had also followed the state capital’s lead to desegregate.
The ease with which Little Rock desegregated its buses in 1956 begs an obvious question: Why, then, did the city become the epicenter of massive and violent resistance to school desegregation less than 18 months later? The answer tells us much about mid-20th century Southern segregation. As the ancient regime of Jim Crow crumbled, whites, especially in the upper South, were more inclined to preserve some areas of segregation than others. In this schema, bus segregation was relatively peripheral. Many whites owned private vehicles and could choose not to use public transportation. Schools were different. Few whites at the time had the option of seceding from public schools and school desegregation meant a greater degree of interracial contact than a fleeting daily bus journey or two. Moreover, providing blacks with equal access to educational opportunities was a far more fundamental threat to white supremacy than a bus ride. Consequently, as whites acceded to change in some areas like buses, in other areas like schools they doubled down on their efforts to preserve and perpetuate white privilege.
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Joel E. Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.