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Aaron v. Cooper, reversed by the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court as Cooper v. Aaron, was the “other shoe dropping” after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas declared school segregation unconstitutional but did not lay out any clear guidelines for how to proceed with desegregation. The Supreme Court’s opinion in Cooper v. Aaron sent a message to segregated school districts nationwide that the Supreme Court would not tolerate attempts to evade or obstruct integration. The intervention of the executive branch in sending federal troops to Little Rock (Pulaski County) underscored the supremacy of the federal Constitution over state law and, arguably, added to the Court’s power and prestige. For Arkansas, the decision was a resounding defeat to the governor’s and legislature’s attempts to slow school desegregation as much as possible. The decision compounded the terrible publicity that Little Rock had already received as photos and news stories of whites assaulting the Little Rock Nine made headlines around the world.
The story of Aaron v. Cooper begins with the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Brown held that separate educational facilities for African-American and white schoolchildren violated the right of the black children to the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In May 1954, only days after the Brown decision, the Little Rock School Board met and agreed to develop a plan to integrate the city’s public schools. The Supreme Court, however, had issued no guidelines for implementing its decision. It took the Court a year to issue a second opinion implementing Brown, and the second opinion contained no clear guidelines—only the mandate to begin “with all deliberate speed”—and equivocal language about some districts being able to integrate faster than others. By this time, the Little Rock School Board had decided on a plan that would achieve desegregation in six years. The plan, announced in May 1955, would begin with a handful of black children attending only one school, Central High School, in the fall of 1957. Desegregation in junior high schools would not begin until the fall of 1960. Grammar schools would be last—the date for beginning their integration was not even set by the plan.
The Little Rock chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) watched this process with some trepidation and, as time passed, decided to sue in order to expedite the process of desegregation. Before a suit could be filed, black parents had to attempt to register their children at white schools. This took place in January 1956, and the families were all turned away by school officials. In February, thirty-three of these children, represented by the NAACP, filed suit in the federal court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, alleging that school officials were conspiring to deny black children their constitutional rights by maintaining segregated schools and fashioning such a gradual plan for integration. Wiley Branton from Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), Thurgood Marshall, and others from out of state represented the plaintiff schoolchildren, whose ages ranged from six to eighteen. John Aaron, who along with his sister Thelma was a plaintiff, was the first-named plaintiff because the children were listed alphabetically; thus, he is the “Aaron” of the case name. Clyde Bates, the son of L. C. Bates, was another one of the plaintiffs. The defendants were the president (William G. Cooper) and secretary of the Little Rock School District, the superintendent of schools, and the district. Lawyers A. F. House, Frank E. Chowning, Leon B. Catlett, Henry E. Spitzberg, and Richard C. Butler represented the defendants.
The procedural history of the case is complex because it became entangled with the events surrounding the Little Rock Nine, Governor Faubus’s attempts to oppose desegregation, and the mob violence and civil disorder surrounding the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.
The trial was held in August 1956, and Judge John E. Miller handed down his decision at the end of the month, ruling that the school board’s plan was prompt and reasonable. The NAACP appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, in November 1956, voters adopted, by referenda, a constitutional amendment, a resolution, and a pupil assignment law, all of which opposed school integration. In the spring of 1957, the state legislature relieved school children of any obligation to attend integrated public schools, established a State Sovereignty Commission, and empowered school boards to spend district funds to pay for legal representation in lawsuits over integration. In April 1957, the Eighth Circuit affirmed Judge Miller’s ruling in favor of the school board.
In August, Mrs. Clyde Thomason sued in the Chancery Court of Pulaski County to stop the impending integration of Central High. Judge Murray Reed issued a temporary restraining order against the school board. However, on August 30, federal district court judge Ronald Davies enjoined Thomason from further proceedings in state court. She appealed this ruling to the Eighth Circuit.
In the fall of 1957 in accordance with the school board’s plan, the Little Rock Nine prepared to begin school at Central High on September 3. Meanwhile, in response to growing segregationist pressure from both inside and outside Arkansas, on September 2, Governor Orval Faubus appeared on television and announced that, because a majority of voters did not favor desegregation and the threat of violence existed, he was ordering the National Guard to keep black children out of white schools. The next day, Judge Davies of the federal district court, which had retained jurisdiction over the matter, issued an order that the school integrate in accordance with the plan already approved by the court. The school board asked for a stay, which the court denied on September 7.
On September 9, Judge Davies requested the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene and request an injunction against Governor Faubus. A hearing took place on September 20, with Osro Cobb, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, appearing for the United States. On September 21, the court issued a preliminary injunction against the governor for exceeding his authority in obstructing the implementation of the school board’s plan. Faubus appealed the injunction. On September 23, under the protection of the Little Rock Police Department, the Little Rock Nine entered Central High School but were withdrawn after a few hours because of a large crowd demonstrating outside. On September 25, by order of President Eisenhower, the 101st Airborne Division—the “Screaming Eagles”—appeared at Central High, and the nine students were finally admitted. The army troops were replaced by federalized National Guardsmen, who remained at the school for the rest of the school year.
After a turbulent fall semester and the departure of one of the Nine, on February 20, 1958, the school board petitioned for the beginning date of integration to be postponed. The board later amended its petition to set the postponement date at January 1961, arguing that its plan for integration could not be implemented because of public opposition. The plaintiffs moved to dismiss, arguing that the rights of the eight remaining black students to finish their high school education at Central High had become vested.
Meanwhile, on April 28, 1958, the Eighth Circuit upheld Judge Davies’s order in Thomason’s lawsuit, ruling that the state court could not frustrate the judgment of the federal court. In another opinion issued the same day, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the injunction against Faubus.
The trial on the school board’s petition was held in District Court on June 3, 1958. On June 20, Judge Lemley issued an opinion granting the postponement to the school board. The plaintiffs appealed directly to the Supreme Court. On June 30, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal before the Eighth Circuit. On August 4, the Eighth Circuit heard arguments and, on August 18, reversed Judge Lemley, ruling that although the board was acting in good faith, it must proceed with integration, and “the time has not yet come in these United States when an order of a Federal Court must be whittled away, watered down, or shamefully withdrawn in the face of violent and unlawful acts of individual citizens in opposition thereto.” The school board appealed, and for only the third time in its history, the U.S. Court met in special session to hear the arguments of both sides. Thurgood Marshall argued the case for the school children and Richard C. Butler the case for the school board on August 28 and September 11, 1958.
Mindful that the school board had postponed the beginning of the school year to await the ruling of the Court, the justices issued a simple order affirming the Court of Appeals on September 12. On September 29, the Court issued a unanimous, per curiam (unsigned) opinion under the name of Cooper v. Aaron, since the school district had appealed the Eighth Circuit ruling. The Court related the sequence of events that had occurred in Little Rock and placed responsibility for the “unfortunate and distressing sequence of events” on the actions of legislators and executive officials resisting the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education, which in turn brought about “violent resistance to that decision in Arkansas.” The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution requires states to provide the equal protection of the law to all persons. The Court refused to sacrifice the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs to “the violence and disorder which have followed upon the actions of the Governor and Legislature,” pointing out that no state elected official can “war against the Constitution” without violating his or her oath to support it. Nor could state officials nullify school children’s rights indirectly through “evasive schemes.” Justice Felix Frankfurter issued a concurring opinion, warning of the lawlessness and anarchy that would result if governments refused to uphold the law in the face of public resistance, and expressing optimism that over time “local customs” would change.
The holding in Cooper v. Aaron rests on several principles of federal constitutional law. The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution declares that the Constitution is “the Supreme law of the land” and thus trumps state laws and constitutions. In the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court held that its interpretation of the Constitution was preeminent over any other. Thus, the Court’s determination in Brown that Topeka was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment could not be defied. Further, since state governors and legislators swear oaths to uphold the Constitution, acting in defiance of Brown was tantamount to breaking these oaths of office.
Aaron v. Cooper did not end with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. When the Court announced its decision, backed by the legislature, Faubus issued an executive order closing the four high schools that had been chosen to integrate. After a special citywide election in which the electorate voted against integration, the public schools remained closed during the 1958–59 academic year. By the spring, however, public opinion had begun to turn. The Little Rock Chamber of Commerce issued a resolution characterizing the Court’s decision as erroneous but nonetheless urging Little Rock to reopen its schools and comply with Brown. The white business community was particularly concerned about a possible economic backlash if outside investment in Arkansas diminished. In the fall of 1959, the schools reopened early, to forestall possible legislative interference. Central and Hall High Schools allowed a few African-American students to register.
Cooper v. Aaron is a landmark case of the U.S. Supreme Court. It echoed themes begun more than a century before, hailing back to the original adoption of the Constitution and the debate over state power to repudiate unpopular federal laws. The Court’s unanimous decision signaled to states that were trying to ignore or evade Brown v. Board of Education that the federal courts would not tolerate state refusal to obey the Fourteenth Amendment. Unfortunately, Aaron v. Cooper was not the last school desegregation case, and the pace of integration has been slower than any of the justices at the time could have foretold.
Plaintiffs in the Aaron v. Cooper Case
mother, Thelma Aaron
father, L.C. Bates
father, Herman Freeman
father, Frank Jackson
father, Lawrence Lee
father, William Massie M.D.
father, Robert Nelson
mother, Vester Scoggins
father, Henry Shackelford
father, Alexander Singleton
Singleton, Mary Francis
father, B.E. Stox
stepfather, Lawrence Lee
father, Willie Toombs
Toombs, Queen Ester
Toombs, Betty Jean
Toombs, Willie Lee
For additional information:“Cooper v. Aaron.” Oyez: U.S. Supreme Court Multimedia. http://www.oyez.org/oyez/resource/case/85/ (accessed July 11, 2006).
Freyer, Tony. “Enforcing Brown in the Little Rock Crisis.” Journal of Appellate Practice and Process 6 (Spring 2004): 67–78.
———. “The Little Rock Confrontation and Cooper v. Aaron: Development and Implementation of Constitutional Litigation.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 30 (Winter 2008): 323–344.
———. The Little Rock Crisis: A Constitutional Interpretation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
———. Little Rock on Trial: Cooper v. Aaron and School Desegregation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
Kilpatrick, Judith. “Cooper v. Aaron: Development and Implementation of the Litigation.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 30 (Winter 2008): 355–361.
Roosevelt III, Kermit. “Judicial Supremacy, Judicial Activism: Cooper v. Aaron and Parents Involved.” Saint Louis University Law Journal 52 (Summer 2008): 1191–1210.
Stockley, Grif. Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Lynn FosterUniversity of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law
Last Updated 3/12/2013
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