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Inferior in numbers and public standing only to its sponsor, the Capital Citizens’ Council (CCC), the Mothers’ League of Central High School was the second most important segregationist organization during the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. Established in August 1957 by Merrill Taylor, a Little Rock (Pulaski County) salesman, and other members of the CCC to give their opposition to School Superintendent Virgil Blossom’s plan for the gradual integration of Little Rock schools a less strident, more “feminine” edge, the league was an inflammatory influence for two years but was never as combative and potent as its patron.
The league combined traditional segregationist enthusiasm for the racial status quo, states’ rights, and anti-miscegenation initiatives with womanly concern for the physical and emotional welfare of innocent white children strained and sickened by the “unspeakable” conditions under which they were being “forced to struggle for an education.”
The league was initially headed by Little Rock housewife Nadine Aaron but was led for the greater part of its existence by its pre-eminent spokeswoman and second president, Margaret Jackson, a Little Rock secretary and the mother of two Central High students. Jackson and the league’s recording secretary, Mary Thomason, a Little Rock housewife, each polled more than forty percent of the vote as segregationist candidates in the November 1957 election for Little Rock City Board of Directors. At various times, both Jackson and Thomason allowed their names to go forward as plaintiffs in anti-integration suits led by attorneys connected with the Capital Citizens’ Council.
The majority of the league’s members were married, lower middle-class and working-class women not in paid employment. Only about one-fifth of its 165 members in October 1957 were the mothers of Central High pupils.
Although the league firmly disavowed violence in favor of more responsible forms of opposition, it encouraged its members to join the crowds around Central High in September 1957. The league organized a student walkout on October 3, 1957, and regularly harassed school officials—alleging, among other things, a lack of discipline; undue influence on the part of Daisy Bates, the state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and indecorous behavior by “occupying” federal troops on duty too close to the girls’ changing rooms. In addition to encouraging individual letter writing and the distribution of circulars and petitions, the league held public rallies and tried to thwart the careers of officials, such as Police Chief Gene Smith, who obeyed the law regardless of their personal views on integration. The league also scolded wavering ministers and lobbied politicians—particularly Governor Orval Faubus but also senators J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan and Representative Brooks Hays.
After the end of the first year of integration, the league focussed on two major developments. On the one hand, it supported the CCC’s September 1958 referendum campaign in favor of Governor Faubus’s decision to close Little Rock’s senior high schools rather than have them operate as integrated institutions. On the other, it endorsed the dismissal of forty-four school personnel assumed sympathetic to desegregation and, when that produced widespread community disquiet, contributed to the CCC’s unsuccessful attempt to remove business-oriented token integrationists from the school board in the resulting recall election of May 1959.
Always cash-strapped, organizationally fragile, more reactive than creative, and subordinate to the CCC, the league was essentially redundant once Central High reopened after its year-long closure in August 1959. It soon disappeared from the public record. Nothing more substantial than correspondence and a fundraising cake stall seems to have come from the league’s October 1957 plans to extend its influence beyond Little Rock and an insignificant affiliate in North Little Rock (Pulaski County).
For additional information:
Cope, Graeme. “‘The Workingest, Fightingest, Band of Patriots in the South’? The Mothers’ League of Central High School during the Lost Year, 1958–1959.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 72 (Summer 2013): 139–157.
———. “‘A Thorn in the Side?’ The Mothers’ League of Central High School and the Little Rock Desegregation Crisis of 1957.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 57 (Summer 1998): 160–190.
McRae, Elizabeth Gillespie. Mothers of Mass Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Last Updated 2/9/2018
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