On this daySep 27, 1958

White Little Rock Voters Choose to Close Public Schools Rather Than Integrate

Library of Congress

On September 27, 1958, following violent resistance and a legal campaign by the white community against attempts to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, city residents voted to close local public schools rather than comply with federal desegregation orders.

After the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, school boards across the country were ordered to draft desegregation plans. The school board in Little Rock, Arkansas, drafted a plan for small numbers of Black students to begin attending previously all-white schools during the 1957-1958 school year. But when nine Black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, made their way to Central High School for the first day of classes in September 1957, they were met by angry crowds and the Arkansas National Guard blocked their entry. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus encouraged the protestors and did everything in his power to hinder integration. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower deployed federal troops to Arkansas and commanded the Arkansas National Guard to escort the students to school.

Still committed to resisting integration, Governor Faubus devised another plan. After the academic year ended in spring 1958, the Little Rock School Board petitioned the federal court for a delay in the implementation of its desegregation plan and was granted a waiver until 1961. The NAACP promptly appealed, and the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In September 1958, the Court overturned the granted delay and ordered Little Rock to integrate immediately.

In anticipation of such a development, the Arkansas Legislature had recently passed a law allowing Governor Faubus to close public schools as an emergency measure and later hold a special election to determine public support. Immediately after the Supreme Court released its decision, the governor put the new law to use, ordering four public high schools closed. Shortly after, in a vote on September 27, an overwhelming majority of voters (19,470 to 7,561) supported continuing the school closure rather than integrating. The schools would remain closed for the entire 1958-1959 academic term, known as “the lost year.” Following the schools' closures, voters continued to support Governor Faubus; he was re-elected four times and served as governor until 1967. 

The massive resistance by the white community was largely successful in preventing integration of schools in the South. In the five Deep South states, every single one of 1.4 million Black schoolchildren attended segregated schools until the fall of 1960. By the start of the 1964-65 school year, less than 3% of the South’s African American children attended school with white students, and in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina that number remained substantially below 1%. In 1967, 13 years after Brown, a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights observed that white violence and intimidation against Black people “continues to be a deterrent to school desegregation.”

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