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Dove v. Parham

Dove v. Parham was a federal desegregation lawsuit filed in the fall of 1959 in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Arkansas. The suit was filed by attorney George Howard Jr. on behalf of three African-American students who were denied transfer to the all-white Dollarway School District. The lawsuit would eventually reach the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The saga of Dove v. Parham began in 1954 when a member of the Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), William Dove, along with a small group of African-American citizens, requested that the Dollarway School District desegregate. The group’s request was denied. In 1957, Dove repeated his request to transfer his five children to the Dollarway School District but was again denied. Later that year, three black students—Earnestine Dove, Corliss Smith, and James Warfield—filed a request for transfer to Dollarway High School and were refused on three separate occasions. In June 1959, NAACP attorneys Robert L. Carter of New York City and George Howard Jr. of Pine Bluff filed a lawsuit against the Dollarway School Board in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Arkansas, on behalf of the students.

Prior to Dove being filed, and while the Aaron v. Cooper desegregation case was proceeding through the courts, Arkansas voters followed the lead of many other states and approved a constitutional amendment adopting pupil placement laws. Generally, pupil placement laws required that students’ school assignments be made by local school boards using various standards, none of which were race. The laws assigned all students to the school that they attended the previous year. If a student found that assignment unsatisfactory, then the burden fell to the student to request a transfer.

Dove came before the U.S. District Court when Judge Axel J. Beck, a South Dakota judge, was serving on a temporary assignment in the Eastern District of Arkansas. Beck placed the burden on school authorities to prove that the placement laws were being used in good faith. Beck departed from all previous rulings concerning pupil placement laws by ruling that the board had not acted in good faith and ordered the students to be admitted to the Dollarway School District immediately. In his ruling, issued on August 4, 1959, Beck ruled that while Arkansas’s pupil placement laws were constitutional on their face, the school board had used the laws as a cover-up for its pro-segregation actions.

Attorneys Robert V. Light and Herschel Friday, on behalf of the Dollarway School Board and school board president Lee Parham, appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, Missouri, on August 6, 1959. By August 10, 1959, Judge Beck had returned to South Dakota. Attorneys for the school district asked that the case be heard by an Arkansas judge. The Eighth Circuit overturned the decision on September 21, 1959, remanding the case back to the U.S. District Court. The case would be heard by Beck’s replacement, J. Smith Henley of Harrison (Boone County). Henley had experience in desegregation matters, having served on the U.S. Justice Department’s legal staff when the order was drafted to send federal troops to Central High School in Little Rock to protect the Little Rock Nine during the desegregation of the school in 1957.

While awaiting the decision of the Eighth Circuit, the Dollarway School District postponed the first day of school until the results of the hearing were final. During this closure, Arkansas attorney general Bruce Bennett filed a friend of the court brief, hoping to keep Arkansas’s pupil placement laws from being dismantled. The overturning of Beck’s previous ruling was a victory for the use of pupil placement laws. The African-American students were forced to start the process anew, which they did. The case again came before Judge Henley.

Judge Henley’s subsequent February 19, 1960, ruling did not order the Dollarway School District to admit the three African-American students. However, it did command the school board to end its practice of segregation and submit a plan to the court as to how it intended to do so. Henley retained jurisdiction over the integration of Dollarway School District until the district reached unitary status in October 1970. The Dove v. Parham ruling dashed any hopes that an upper South state such as Arkansas would set a rapid pace for school desegregation.

For additional information:
Peltason, Jack Walter. Fifty-Eight Lonely Men: Southern Federal Judges and School Desegregation. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1961.

Pickhardt, John B. “We Don’t Intend to Have a Story: Integration in the Dollarway School District.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 68 (Winter 2009): 357–387.

Sinclair, Kevin W. “Dove v. Parham: Desegregation in the Dollarway School District.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2014.

Kevin Sinclair
Sheridan, Arkansas

Last Updated 4/13/2016

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