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Past & Present: Cooper v. Aaron

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On September 12, 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that states are bound by the court’s decisions and must enforce them, even if the states disagree. This decision in Cooper v. Aaron followed four years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that ordered public schools desegregated.

During the intervening time, school districts throughout the South remained openly hostile and defiant to a federally enforced plan of integration.

The seeds of the Cooper decision were planted in 1956. As the school district in Little Rock, Arkansas, formulated a plan to desegregate its schools, the Arkansas state Legislature amended the state Constitution to oppose desegregation and made attendance at integrated schools voluntary. The state law was in conflict with the federal decision.

To test the strength of these laws, nine students, later known as the Little Rock Nine, enrolled at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. In direct defiance of federal law, the governor, Orval Faubus, employed the Arkansas National Guard to bar them from entering the school. President Dwight Eisenhower countered by sending in the Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. This showdown of state and federal power soon entered the courtroom.

On Feb. 20, 1958, members of the school board filed suit, urging suspension of its plan to desegregate. They argued that public hostility had created an intolerable and chaotic situation in Little Rock. While the school board was initially victorious in district court, the Supreme Court overturned that court’s decision. The Supreme Court found that Arkansas had violated its citizens’ rights to equal protection, and it also cited violations of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, rejected nullification of federal law by states, and required states to follow federal Court decisions. With this decision, the Court confirmed the federal government’s potential power in enforcing civil rights.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.