This week children return to school peacefully, but in 1957 it was a time violence when nine black children attempted to enter Central High School in Little Rock. By then, opponents of integration had abandoned crude methods of obstruction in favor of using the law to defeat the law.

Aug. 21, 2016

This week children return to school peacefully, but in 1957 it was a time violence when nine black children attempted to enter Central High School in Little Rock. By then, opponents of integration had abandoned crude methods of obstruction in favor of using the law to defeat the law.

Legal History [1]

“The Civil War ended in 1865 and the 13th amendment to the constitution freed 4 million slaves. Until then slave owners had forbidden teaching slaves to read and write. Hence, emancipated slaves were illiterate. Their only hope of advancement was migration or education.

In 1865 the Freedmen’s Bureau was established to help former slaves and poor whites in the South through food, housing, medical aid, and schools. By 1870 when the educational work of the Bureau stopped, there were 247,333 black pupils in 4,329 school and more than a dozen colleges for blacks.

When Reconstruction ended in 1877 and “home rule” was restored, southern whites were in full control of state government and education. They resisted school integration through underfunding. By 1909 Alabama was spending 514% more per white child than per black child. By 1930 southern states spent $2 per black student and $7 per white student for public education. The Plessy v Ferguson decision of SCOTUS in 1896 legalized the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

By mid-century only 250 of the old Confederacy’s 2,265 school districts had started desegregation. Of the 2,800,000 black children in the south, fewer than 10,000 were estimated to be in classes with white children. Two Brown v Topeka Board of Education decisions by SCOTUS in 1954 ended 60 years of separate and unequal segregation based solely on race and the court ordered integration “ with all deliberate speed.”

Southern schools used the law to delay implementing the law. Eleven southern states adopted laws to avoid school integration. Seven years after the Brown decision there were still eight states where less than one black child in 1,000 was attending a desegregated school. Ten years after Brown, Mississippi was the only state that had not desegregated its public schools below the college level, though desegregation had barely started in South Carolina and Alabama.

Little Rock Nine

September 4, 1957 nine black children sought admission to Central High School in Little Rock in September 1957. One of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, was photographed being spat on by an angry white student among the mob. Governor Orval Faubus closed Little Rock schools for the 1958-9 school year. In Sept. 1959 SCOTUS ruled that their orders could not be ‘nullified.’ In 1956 , one hundred one members of Congress signed a ‘Southern Manifesto,’ asserting SCOTUS had violated states ’rights. The ‘stall and defy’ game plan delayed integration of schools for years. “As long as we can legislate, we can segregate.”

Why the Anger?

Faubus called out units of the Arkansas National Guard to block their entry. The mayor appealed to President Eisenhower who federalized the National Guard then replaced them with units of the 101st Airborne. It would be Sept.25, 1959 before the black students attended classes. In 1963 not one black child attended a public school with a white child in South Carolina.

These innocent nine girls were met by angry whites of all ages. One picture shown worldwide was of a young white girl, teeth bared, cursing and spitting upon a black child. Why?

The “Special Century” was when people started getting richer and richer e.g., 1870-1970. It was the century following the Civil War in the U.S. which carved out the technological frontier for all developed nations. It was a singular interval of rapid growth late in the nineteenth century powered by a unique clustering of “Great Inventions.” It will not be repeated. From 1920-70 growth was three times the current rate. The high point of productivity growth in that era was the decade of the fifties—the occasion of the Brown decision.

From 1946 to 1970 all boats were rising economically which raised the aspirations of blacks for equal progress in other aspects of their lives like education. The fifties have been called the “Golden Age” when the middle class achieved the American Dream e.g., a steady job with decent pay and health benefits, rising living standards, a home of your own, a secure retirement, and the hope that your children would enjoy a better future. Again, the crisis in Little Rock occurred dead center in this time of progress—for many, but not all.

Poor whites reasoned that their status was threatened if the class below them, blacks, advanced. Writing of today’s poor white’s anger, conservative writer Kevin Williamson explained the “incomprehensible malice of poor white America as….despair over the loss of their perch in the country’s pecking order..the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white…. consumed with racial status anxiety and animus toward the nonwhites passing them on the ladder.”


Holly Tucker was a friend of mine who came to Ann Arbor from Dickson, Tennessee soon after WWII ended. A high school graduate, he had learned to be an x-ray tech in the navy. He told me that the first thing he did was apply for a job at the Big Three auto plants. All Three offered him a job at more than three times what he had made back home [$225/month]. The jobs were mind-numbingly boring e.g., placing screws and washers on bolts. [He declined all three and worked to retirement at Consolidated Edison then moved back to Dixon on a pension.] He achieved the American Dream. Now a lot of folks like Holly are nostalgic for those times their parents experienced, realize that they are gone , and are mighty angry.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica 1966; Carol Anderson, ‘White Rage,’2016; Robert Gordon, ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth,’ 2016;Yuval Levin, Yuval, ‘The Fractured Republic,’ 2016; Hedrick Smith, ‘Who Stole the American Dream?,’2012;Alec MacGillis, ‘The Original Underclass,’ Atlantic, Sept. 2016.