Little Rock on Trial

Cooper v. Aaron and School Desegregation

Tony A. Freyer

Winner: J.G. Ragsdale Book Award
Choice Outstanding Title

Americans were riveted to their television sets in 1957, when a violent mob barred black students from entering Little Rock’s Central High School and faced off against paratroopers sent by a reluctant President Eisenhower. That set off a firestorm of protest throughout the nation and ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Cooper v. Aaron, reaffirming Brown v. Board of Education’s mandate for school integration “with all deliberate speed” and underscoring the supremacy of federal and constitutional authority over state law.

“Offers original insights into the behind-the-scenes actions of judges, lawyers, and politicians in shaping the decisions associated with Cooper v. Aaron and the politics of race in Little Rock and the nation. . . . Freyer’s book offers a timely reminder that protests without litigation could not achieve victories in the conservative political climate of postwar America.

—Journal of Southern History

“Freyer does a good job in making the dense legal thicket of constitutional law surrounding the case accessible to the layperson and in locating the legal struggle in its local political and social context. He also offers fascinating insights into the workings of the Supreme Court and how its justices reasoned in scholl desegregation cases.

—Reviews in American History
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Noted scholar Tony Freyer, arguably our nation’s top authority on this subject, now provides a concise, lucid, and eminently teachable summary of that historic case and shows that it paved the way for later civil rights victories. He chronicles how the Little Rock school board sought court approval to table integration efforts and how the black community brought suit against the board’s watered-down version of compliance. The board's request was denied by a federal appeals court and taken to the Supreme Court, where the unanimous ruling in Cooper reaffirmed federal law—but left in place the maddening ambiguities of “all deliberate speed.”

While other accounts have focused on the showdown on the schoolhouse steps, Freyer takes readers into the courts to reveal the centrality of black citizens’ efforts to the origins and outcome of the crisis. He describes the work of the Little Rock NAACP—with its Legal Defense Fund led by Thurgood Marshall and Wiley Branton—in defining the issues and abandoning gradualism in favor of direct confrontation with the segregationist South. He also includes the previously untold account of Justice William Brennan’s surprising influence upon Justice Felix Frankfurter’s controversial concurring opinion, which preserved his own “deliberate speed” wording from Brown.

With Cooper, the “well morticed high wall” of segregation had finally cracked. As the most important test of Brown, which literally contained the means to thwart its own intent, it presaged the civil rights movement’s broader nonviolent mass action combining community mobilization and litigation to finally defeat Jim Crow. It was not only a landmark decision, but also a turning point in America’s civil rights struggle.

About the Author

Tony A. Freyer is University Research Professor of History and Law at the University of Alabama. He is the author of more than ten books, including The Little Rock Crisis, and served as a consultant on that subject for the documentary Eyes on the Prize.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series