The decision had been sixty years in the making, but when it came, it was like an earthquake across the South. The Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 4, 1954, declaring that the “separate but equal” doctrine that upheld segregation was inherently unequal and unconstitutional. That summer, communities across Arkansas were faced with the question of how to face the new reality for public education in America.
Segregated schools had weighed heavily on southern communities for many years, forcing small communities to shoulder the costs of two separate school districts simultaneously while angry divisions simmered. Left behind were children simply trying to get an education and learn in peace in the schools their parents’ tax dollars had provided.
Civil rights activists had worked through the courts for years, and small signs of progress had emerged. In 1948, the University of Arkansas allowed African-American students to begin attending the law school and the medical school after federal courts had ordered an end to the whites-only admissions policy. Six African-American students would begin attending the University of Arkansas School of Law in fall 1948 while Edith Irby Jones became the first African-American to attend the medical school, in a time when it was rare for women of any race to be admitted to medical school. In 1952, courts had ordered the Little Rock school district to end the unequal pay rates of white and African-American school teachers.
Dale Bumpers, a future Arkansas governor and U.S. Senator, was a young lawyer in Charleston at the time and recounted the story in his autobiography, The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town, years later. Bumpers noted that the school board approached him shortly after the Brown decision was handed down, asking for legal advice. “The day of reckoning would come,” he noted and advised the school board to desegregate. At the time, African-Americans in Charleston lived in a small settlement just outside of town. There, one teacher taught African-American students in grades 1-8 in a one-room school. Older students were sent to nearby Fort Smith.
Weighing the gravity of the court decision and the costs of paying an extra teacher and busing in a segregated system, Charleston quietly voted to integrate the schools, hoping to save thousands of dollars in expenses and possible legal fees. That fall, thirteen African-American students enrolled in Charleston schools.
Charleston became the first district in the South to desegregate its schools. Sheridan voted to desegregate its schools in summer 1954 but quickly abandoned the plan after a public outcry erupted. Fayetteville would vote to integrate its schools two weeks after Charleston, enrolling nine African-American students that fall.
It would be far from the end regarding civil rights law in Arkansas. Many in Arkansas reacted with rage to the decision by the Supreme Court. School districts across the state would spend years in courts over desegregation and integration orders. In summer 1954, Gov. Francis Cherry was thrust out of office in favor of Orval Faubus after Cherry stated that the Supreme Court must be obeyed. Faubus, ironically, had stayed quiet on the issue in the 1954 campaign.
For three years before the confrontation at Central High School in Little Rock, desegregation had been an accomplished fact in Arkansas, thanks in part to the courage to one small town in western Arkansas.