This Week’s History:
The Little Rock Crisis famously occurred in 1957 as nine African American teenagers (eventually) succeeded in integrating Little Rock’s Central High School. Three years after the Brown v Board decision white parents and agitators throughout the South were still fighting the court’s order to desegregate, and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent integration at Central. President Dwight D Eisenhower responded by sending in the 101st Airborne and federalizing the Arkansas Guard to ensure compliance with Brown. The Little Rock Nine entered the school and though not without issue, finished out the year in integrated classrooms. What is not so well known is what happened after the 1957-58 school year.
After the Crisis year, most outsiders might have thought the issue settled. However, Faubus called a special session of the Arkansas state legislature during which they passed a raft of segregationist legislation. One of those bills, Act 4, gave the governor the power to close any school faced with integration, but also stipulated that a special election be held to grant approval for the closure. Act 5 allowed the state money that would have gone to a school forced to close to instead follow the student to whichever school they subsequently attended, whether public or private. Additionally, the Little Rock School Board petitioned the courts to delay further integration in the school system. While a federal judge granted the delay, a subsequent suit brought by the NAACP led the US Supreme Court to issue a reversal of that decision. That same day, 12 September 1958, Gov. Faubus signed all the segregation bills into law and ordered the four high schools in Little Rock closed beginning Monday the 15th. The special election was held, and seventy-five percent of Little Rock voters approved the school closures.
During what became known as the “Lost Year,” those four high schools remained closed for the entirety of the 1958-59 school year and almost 4,000 students were forced to seek alternative educational opportunities. As students were locked out of the schools, the teachers and administrators were “locked in,” required to show up each day to empty classrooms to fulfill contract obligations. There was a short-lived experiment with teaching via live TV broadcast, but that only lasted a few weeks. Not surprisingly, white students were better positioned, and many found placement in the numerous private schools in the area, including many newly opened to cater specifically to the segregationists. Many moved to stay with extended family and attend school in other communities in Arkansas and even out of state. Others had access to transportation which enabled them to attend public schools outside the city. Some Black students were able to transfer to segregated schools near Little Rock or move in with relatives, but only half of African American students were able to secure alternatives to Little Rock schools, while some eighty percent of whites were able to continue their education.
The battle over integrated education continued throughout the year, leading to more violence in Little Rock. Teachers and administrators were fired if they were considered “too soft” on integration. Others were reassigned or resigned, and the Little Rock School Board turned over three times during the year. The school board was comprised of six members, three segregationists and three moderates, so no solution was forthcoming from that quarter. Chaos continued until finally dueling recall campaigns led to an election in May 1959. The election resulted in the three segregationists being narrowly recalled and subsequently replaced. The federal district court also issued a ruling the following month declaring the closures and transfer of monies unconstitutional. The new school board ordered the schools to open early for the 1959-60 school year, which they did, but desegregation was still carried out on a very limited basis for another dozen years until busing was implemented in the 1970s.
References and Further Reading:
Finding the Lost Year: What Happened When Little Rock Closed its Public Schools? Sondra Gordy, University of Arkansas Press, 2009.
“Lost Year,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Graeme Cope, “‘A Mockery for Education?’ Little Rock’s Thomas J Raney High School during the Lost Year, 1958-1959,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 78 (Autumn 2019), 248-273.
“The Lost Year: The Road from Hell is Paved in Little Rocks,” University of Arkansas Little Rock Virtual Exhibits
“Oral Histories: Teachers of the Lost Year,” University of Central Arkansas Archives
“Little Rock, Arkansas, 1958-59,” C-SPAN
“Deadly 1921 Coal Miner Revolt in West Virginia Remembered,” KXNews (SD)
“Virginia Removes Robert E Lee Statue from State Capital,” The New York Times
“How Civil Rights Pioneer Bob Moses Changed Math Education,” EdSurge News
“A Bullet-riddled Sign on Display in DC Honors Teen Civil Rights Icon,” wtopnews (Washington, DC)
Until next week, take care,
Michele “Scout” Johnson
This series of posts to H-South, “Southern History and Civil Rights in the News,” aims to generate and track informed public discussions of southern history and civil rights. To recommend a reading, please email Dr. Michele Johnson at email@example.com