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 HistorySee all reviews...
“A comprehensive legal history of the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas. Freyer has written the best book we have thus far on a difficult subject.”
—Arkansas Historical Quarterly
“Professors who teach courses in the history of the Civil Rights Movement and Constitutional Law will find this book a worthy case study and companion to the numerous texts that focus on the Brown decision.”
—Law & Politics Book Review
“Freyer does a superb job of analyzing the case of Cooper v Aaron, beginning with its historical background—racially segregated schools—and ending with the unanimous Supreme Court opinion insisting that its desegregation edict be obeyed. The study is much more than a critical assessment of a court decision, however. Marching across its pages are the players in the national drama: President Eisenhower, Governor Orval Faubus, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, the nine justices of the Supreme Court, and many other participants. Especially instructive is the section narrating the internal struggle among the justices as they strove for unanimity. Highly recommended.”
“Reveals the legal intricacies of Cooper v. Aaron in a clear, exciting, accessible style.”
“A riveting tale of struggle between southern segregationists and civil rights advocates, political intrigue, Cold War conflict, legal machinations, and the use of federal paratroopers to defend the rights of black Americans. Deeply researched and powerfully written, Little Rock on Trial is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding this critical episode in America’s racial transformation.”
—Michael J. Klarman, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning From Jim Crow to Civil Rights
“A major contribution to the history of the struggle for racial justice in our nation.”
—Mary Frances Berry, Chairperson, United States Commission on Civil Rights, 1993–2004See fewer reviews...
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.