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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Southern School Desegregation

1957-1962

"Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, we are going to maintain segregated schools down in Dixie."
—U. S. Senator James Eastland, Democrat from Mississippi

Related Links:

  • Learn more about the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
  • Read an interview with Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine.
  • Access the text of Mississippi governor Ross Barnett's televised speech defying a Supreme Court integration order.
  • Find out how a moderate segregationist like Alabama politician George Wallace became an extreme segregationist.

Southern whites resist the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, which states that separate school facilities are inherently unequal and orders school integration. Several southern governors lead the way in preventing integration, claiming the Federal government is intervening in state matters and pledging to maintain the South's traditions and heritage. The NAACP's legal team files suit to open the doors of public educational institutions to African Americans.

In Alabama, mob rule and violence are used to keep Autherine Lucy from enrolling in the university in early 1956, although a court decision backs her efforts.

In Arkansas, the Little Rock Nine -- a group of African American high school students -- pass through angry crowds to integrate Central High School in fall 1957. They are protected by paratroopers dispatched by President Dwight Eisenhower, and advised by state NAACP officials including Daisy Bates.

In Virginia, the governor chooses to close schools rather than integrate. In New Orleans in 1960, white residents riot over four black girls entering a desegregated first-grade classroom.

And in Mississippi, in 1963, James Meredith is barred from registering at the University of Mississippi by Governor Ross Barnett. As segregationists gather on campus, armed with guns and homemade explosives, the governor and President John Kennedy engage in fruitless negotiations. Kennedy has to decide whether he will take the political risk to actively support civil rights, even as tensions mount. When he sends Federal marshals to the campus, the mob erupts in violence, killing two people and wounding many others before the president sends in the U.S. Army to restore order. Meredith will enroll and ultimately graduate from the university.

Context

Other Events: 1957

A crowd of 92,000 people fills New York's Yankee Stadium to hear evangelist Billy Graham.

Overzealous anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy dies.

Jackie Robinson retires, and the Brooklyn Dodgers relocate to Los Angeles. Jim Brown makes his NFL debut and leads the football league in rushing.

The Soviets launch Sputnik, the first space satellite. The first United Nations peacekeeping force is formed.

Paul Getty is the richest man in America; he owns $1 billion in real estate.

Dick Clark's pop music television show "American Bandstand" debuts, as does Raymond Burr's "Perry Mason," a courtroom drama.

Miles Davis and Ray Charles release their first recordings.

Press

The Denver Post, September 5, 1957

Editorial: The Arkansas Trampler

The governor of Arkansas, in defiance of a federal court order, is attempting to bar Negroes from attending a Little Rock high school...

He has denied that he is defying Federal District Judge Ronald N. Davies, who has ordered integration of the Little Rock high school on a gradual and limited basis. The governor insists that he is, rather, only using the Arkansas national guard to keep "peace and order..."

...From the facts now at hand, the governor's actions appear to have been impulsive, unwarranted and deliberately provocative. He has revealed himself as a stooge of militant minorities aligned with bigots to trample civil rights in a phony defense against imaginary evils. Arkansas deserves better.

The Birmingham Post-Herald, September 5, 1957

Editorial: An Inevitable Clash

Important, far-reaching legal precedents could come out of the action of the governor of Arkansas in calling out the National Guard to block integration of a Little Rock school.

Governor Faubus says the guardsmen are on duty to preserve peace and maintain order.

Certainly that is one of his responsibilities as governor.

There is little room for doubt that public sentiment in Arkansas supports Governor Faubus. A majority of the people not only in Arkansas but throughout the South are opposed to the integration of the schools...

...Their attitude is not one of revolt or arbitrary refusal to bow to authority which always they have respected and upheld. But underlying it is a deep sense of injustice and a determination too often underestimated and widely misunderstood...

...As the President pointed out, you do not change people's hearts merely by laws. He might have added, nor by mere law can you expect to change overnight a region's deep-rooted way of life.

The Boston Globe, mid-September, 1957

Editorial: The Ordeal at Little Rock

The situation in Little Rock has put a hard line around the amorphous but firm resistance of the South to the Federal court order for integration into the hitherto all-white schools. Perhaps, in the long run, the blundering procedure of Gov. Orval Faubus may precipitate resolution of the remaining legal questions delaying the inevitable death of segregation in public schools...

...Of course the Federal government is not going to arrest the governor, nor march in troops to force a high school doorway. The South, as well as the North, is a country of law and its respect for the law will prevail...

The Cleveland Call and Post, September 21, 1957

The People Have a Right to Know

Last Saturday, Sept. 14, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States and Orval E. Faubus, Governor of Arkansas, met in conference on what has been declared by many, as one of the most serious problems facing this government since the Civil War.

At the conclusion of this conference, both participants issued statements, but, in neither of these statements was there any revelation to the American people as to what decisions, if any, they arrived at...

...The American people are just as much in the dark about the defiance of Federal authority as they were before the Newport conference. As we go to press, the soldiers are still preventing Negro children from going to Central High School in Little Rock. Gov. Faubus has not retreated or retracted one inch or one word...

...Gov. Faubus has deliberately chosen to defy the Federal Government. He therefore, should be treated like any other state official who disobeys a court order and willfully invades the constitutional rights of citizens...

...The question involved at Little Rock is the supremacy of the laws of the land over the personal prejudiced whims of a duly elected official. Gov. Faubus had nothing whatsoever to do with ordering the integration of the public schools in Arkansas, this was the responsibility of the Little Rock School Board and the Federal Judge.

The question now, however, is, did President Eisenhower compromise away the rights of the American people in his talk with Gov. Faubus?...

Music

Which Side Are You On?
Songwriter: Florence Reece, with new words by James Farmer
Performed by: The Freedom Singers
Listen to the Music

Freedom songs came from union halls as well as churches. "Which Side Are You On?" had been written by Florence Reece, the wife of a striking Kentucky coal miner.

Civil rights activists changed the words to ask whether the listener was on the side of freedom fighters or on the side of ("a [Uncle] Tom for") Mississippi governor Ross Barnett. Barnett, like some other Southern politicians, had been a moderate who veered to the right, embracing segregation to get more white votes. Barnett and his counterparts in Arkansas and other states resisted admitting black students to all-white public high schools and universities.

The song's question was directed to two groups. First, it addressed whites, who were faced with the choice of supporting progressive and often unpopular activists or maintaining a comfortable status quo that was increasingly seen as racist.

Second, the song addressed middle class blacks who might have felt they had more to lose by standing with the grass-roots activists; one verse of the song is: "Come all you bourgeois black men/ With all your excess fat/ A few days in the county jail/ Will sure get rid of that."

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

Southern School Desegregation
Duration: 3:28 min
Watch the Video

Jefferson Thomas, one of the "Little Rock Nine," narrates the first set of clips, which show white mobs, paratroopers patrolling the streets, and soldiers escorting black students into Little Rock's Central High School.

Then Elizabeth Eckford, another of the nine pioneering students, describes the treatment she received, while footage of the crowds around her is shown.

Footage courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration, Special Media Archives Services Division, College Park, MD.

Map

The Battle Over Southern School Desegregation, 1954-1963

  1. Topeka, Kansas
    The landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, declares segregated schools unequal. Kansan father Oliver Brown had filed suit to improve his daughter Linda's schooling.
  2. Tuscaloosa, Alabama
    In 1956, Autherine Lucy enters the University of Alabama. Assaulted by angry mobs, she is suspended for safety reasons after three days, and later expelled. In 1963, Governor George Wallace will again bar African American students from the university until the federal government intervenes.
  3. Little Rock, Arkansas
    The Little Rock school board integrates Central High School in 1957. Enraged segregationists protest until U.S. Army troops arrive to protect the students and enforce the law.
  4. Richmond, Virginia
    In 1958, Governor Lindsay Almond, Jr. closes schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and other parts of Virginia rather than integrate them.
  5. New Orleans, Louisiana
    Four African American first-graders precipitate a major riot when they integrate all-white schools in 1960.
  6. Oxford, Mississippi
    James Meredith files suit to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. His legal victory triggers lethal protests by segregationists. He is ultimately admitted under federal protection.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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