The events surrounding the desegregation of Central High School in 1957 have placed Little Rock at the heart of the state’s narrative about school desegregation. Sixty years later, following many decades of legal struggles, and the more recent state takeover of the Little Rock School District, the state capital remains in the spotlight. Yet while the Little Rock story is quite rightly considered important, it is part of a much larger and more complex story of school desegregation in Arkansas. By understanding that story, we can learn more about the politics of school desegregation both in Little Rock and in Arkansas.
At the time of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education school desegregation decision, Arkansas had 423 school districts. Of these, 184 districts contained only white students, 11 contained only black students, and 228 contained both white and black students. A good deal of the early moves toward school desegregation in the state was in Northwest Arkansas, which had a much smaller black population than Southeast Arkansas.
The first school district to desegregate was Charleston, in Franklin County, where on Aug. 23, 1954, barely two months after the Brown decision, 14 black students were admitted to its formerly all-white elementary and high school. Previously, the black students had been bused on a daily 40-mile round trip to black schools in Fort Smith. Desegregation was sold as a cost-cutting measure, but still proved difficult to achieve. The leadership of local attorney and future governor Dale Bumpers smoothed the process considerably. The district consciously avoided publicity.
There was more publicity surrounding Fayetteville, the next district to desegregate. Four days after Brown, Fayetteville announced it would allow its nine black high school students to attend classes with whites in the fall. Like Charleston, Fayetteville had bused its black students to segregated schools in Fort Smith, and also in Hot Springs, round trips of 120 and 300 miles, at a cost of $5,000 a year. School superintendent Wayne White informed the press that “segregation was a luxury we could no longer afford.” Neither Charleston nor Fayetteville encountered any difficulties in desegregating their schools.
The story was quite different when Sheridan, in South Central Arkansas, decided to follow suit. Days after the Brown decision the school board voted to desegregate. This was also presented as a cost-cutting measure: Sheridan spent $4,000 a year busing black students to a segregated school in an adjoining county. Immediately, school patrons filed a petition in protest. The school board backed down and most members resigned. Even more drastic action followed. One of the largest employers of black families in Sheridan, who was also their landlord, told his black employees that they would have to move out of the county or he would burn their homes down. They left. By getting rid of its black population, Sheridan ended talk of school desegregation and cut its busing expenses. No other school districts sought to desegregate in 1954.
The following summer, Hoxie, in Northeast Arkansas, announced it would desegregate as a cost-cutting measure, because it was the law and because it was “morally right in the sight of God.” Twenty-one black students attended the previously all-white high school in 1955. However, when Life magazine ran a feature story about the success of school desegregation there, it caused segregationists from all over the state to descend on the town. Foremost among them was Jim Johnson, head of the recently founded Associated Citizens’ Councils of Arkansas, an organization dedicated to resisting school desegregation in the state. Yet, despite much intimidation, the school board stood strong and the courts backed them. Hoxie schools stayed desegregated. The same year, Bentonville allowed its one black student, Carl Stewart, to enroll at Bentonville High School. The school district had previously paid for a private tutor. Not until a year later did the news of desegregation become public.
Amid growing state and regional opposition to school desegregation, only one school district attempted to desegregate in 1956. Hot Springs allowed six black students to study with four white students in a high school auto mechanics class. A subsequent suggestion to extend those arrangements to other classes met with opposition.
The following year, in 1957, school desegregation in Arkansas was dominated by the headlines in Little Rock. Almost unnoticed, just a week before Little Rock unsuccessfully attempted to desegregate, Van Buren peacefully admitted 23 black students into its high school under court order. However, in 1958, after segregationists in Little Rock had stirred up trouble, the climate had changed in Van Buren, too. White students began to physically intimidate black students. As in Hoxie, school board officials took a stand, the courts backed them, and after a temporary period of disruption the school continued on a desegregated basis.
Events in Little Rock caused problems in yet more districts that had already desegregated. Charleston began to encounter protests, which it weathered. Progress in Fayetteville’s school desegregation plan slowed. When Ozark attempted to admit three black students into its high school in 1957, white students copied their peers at Little Rock’s Central High and harassed them. Desegregation at Ozark stuttered off and on for the next two years before the district finally reinstated the busing of black students to segregated schools outside the district. Elsewhere in 1957, one black student was admitted to Fort Smith’s DuVal Elementary School without trouble, and six black students were turned away from North Little Rock High School.
Although Little Rock high schools reopened on a token desegregated basis in August 1959, after closing to avoid desegregation in 1958, the upheavals in the capital city slowed school desegregation across the state. In 1959, Pulaski County Special School District desegregated one school on the Little Rock Air Force Base under threat of losing federal money, and Gosnell, in Mississippi County, followed suit with its school on Blytheville Air Force Base in 1962. The same year, Mansfield stopped busing its students on a 60-mile round trip north to Fort Smith and enrolled 14 black students into previously all-white schools. Between 1960 and 1963, Dollarway School District between White Hall and Pine Bluff implemented a desegregation plan under court order. In 1963, school desegregation was extended in Hot Springs when it admitted five black students into previously all-white schools.
Coming up to a decade after the Brown decision, only 13 school districts out of the state’s 228 biracial districts had implemented desegregation. It took decisive federal government intervention to speed things up with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The act permitted the Justice Department to file suit against recalcitrant school districts and prompted the Office of Education to draw up more stringent guidelines for school desegregation. Although it continued to allow so-called “freedom of choice” plans for voluntary desegregation, which had proved little more than a stalling tactic, it insisted that those plans should now be measured by “the extent to which Negro or other minority group students have in fact transferred from segregated schools.” The message was clear: The time for foot-dragging and delay was over. The courts, emboldened by the new developments, began to take a stronger stand in enforcing school desegregation.
The impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on school desegregation in Arkansas was dramatic. By 1966, only 36 districts out of 228 had not begun to implement a desegregation plan. Of those 36 districts, only 12 declared that they had no intention to desegregate.
The period of rapid desegregation in the mid-1960s came at a cost to black communities. Too often, school desegregation was achieved in Arkansas by simply closing black schools and firing black teachers, a bittersweet price to pay to give black students access to better facilities that had been hoarded in white schools. The question of desegregating teaching faculties was only considered after the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. The first successful suit for faculty desegregation in Arkansas was in Morrilton School District in 1966.
It took over a decade after the Brown decision for Arkansas to take school desegregation seriously. Of the districts that did desegregate before 1964, in many instances it took direct federal pressure to achieve any results. In other instances, desegregation took place only because it was in the school district’s financial interests. A reliance on voluntarism to get Arkansas to desegregate its schools in any substantial way was an abject failure.
Even by 1966, after the pendulum had swung toward school desegregation, there was still a long way to go. Twelve lost years of school desegregation had taken their toll. School administrators had been busy with school building programs to make sure that newly redesigned and soon to be desegregated school systems would perpetuate racial discrimination by mirroring segregated residential patterns. The culture of resistance in school districts, and the mantra that the best desegregation was the least desegregation, had become firmly entrenched. A massive expansion in private schools and white flight would soon exacerbate these problems. The early pattern of school desegregation in Arkansas still continues to profoundly influence the state’s approach to education today.
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 UALR. A longer and footnoted version of this article can be found in the Autumn 2011 volume of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly.