Cooper v. Aaron: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Ending Segregation in Arkansas Schools

Protesters opposed integration on the steps of the state capitol
Protesters rally at the state capitol to oppose the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1959.

John T. Bledsoe / Wikimedia Commons / U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress 

In Cooper v. Aaron (1958), the United States Supreme Court ruled that an Arkansas School Board had to comply with federal court orders regarding desegregation. The decision affirmed and enforced the Court's previous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Fast Facts: Cooper v. Aaron

  • Case Argued: August 29, 1958 and September 11, 1958
  • Decision Issued: December 12, 1958
  • Petitioner: William G. Cooper, President of the Little Rock Arkansas Independent School District, and fellow board members
  • Respondent: John Aaron, one of 33 black children who had been denied enrollment to segregated white schools
  • Key Questions: Did the Little Rock Arkansas school district have to comply with federally mandated desegregation orders?
  • Per Curiam: Justices Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Burton, Whittaker, Brennan
  • Ruling: School Districts are bound by Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court ordered desegregation of schools based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Facts of the Case

In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. The decision failed to offer states any sort of guidance for desegregating school systems which had relied on the practice for decades. Days after the decision was handed down, members of the Little Rock School Board met to discuss a plan for integrating schools. In May of 1955 they announced a six-year plan to integrate Little Rock's public schools. The first step, they said, was to have a small number of black children attend Central High School in 1957. In 1960, the district would begin integrating junior high schools as well. Elementary schools were not even on the calendar.

The Little Rock chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) prepared to sue in federal court to speed up the integration process. In January of 1956, nearly two years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, a number of black families attempted to enroll their children in white schools. They were all turned away. The NAACP filed suit on behalf of 33 black children who were told they could not enroll.

A judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas federal court reviewed the school district's six-year plan and decided it was both prompt and reasonable. The NAACP appealed the decision. In April 1957, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision that the school board's plan for integration was sufficient. As the case unfolded, anti-integration sentiment rose in Arkansas. Voters enacted referendums opposing desegregation. In the spring of 1957, the Arkansas state legislature began allowing school boards to spend district funds to fight integration in the legal system.

In accordance with Little Rock School Board's plan, by fall of 1957, nine black children readied themselves to attend Central High School. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, a staunch segregationist, called in the National Guard to prevent the children from entering the school. Photos of black children facing angry mobs at Central High School gained national attention.

In response to Governor Faubus, a federal district court judge issued an order to force the Little Rock public school system to continue with integration plans. The Little Rock School Board asked for more time to argue the matter and was denied on September 7, 1957. At the request of the district judge, and after hearings, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened and granted an injunction against Governor Faubus. On September 23, 1957 the children once again entered Central High School under the protection of the Little Rock Police Department. They were removed partway through the day due to the gathering crowd of protesters outside the school. Two days later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to escort the children.

On February 20, 1958, the Little Rock School Board petitioned to postpone their desegregation plan as a result of the protests and public unrest. The district court allowed the postponement. The NAACP appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. In August, the Court of Appeals reversed the finding, ordering the school board to move forward with its desegregation plans. The U.S. Supreme Court convened a special session to hear the case, conscious of the fact that the Little Rock School Board had delayed the start of the school year in order to settle the matter. The Court handed down a per curiam opinion, in which nine justices collectively crafted a single decision.

Constitutional Issues

Did the Little Rock School Board have to comply with desegregation in accordance with the Supreme Court's prior rulings?

Arguments

The school board argued that the desegregation plan had caused immense unrest, propelled by the Governor of Arkansas himself. Further integration of the schools would only serve to harm all students involved. The attorney submitted evidence to show that the performance of Central High School students had suffered during the 1957-58 school year.

An attorney on behalf of the students urged the Supreme Court to affirm the Court of Appeals' decision. Integration should not be delayed. Postponing it would continue to harm black students in favor of keeping the peace. The Supreme Court would undermine its own decision in allowing a postponement, the attorney argued.

Per Curiam Opinion

Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote most of the per curiam opinion, which was handed down on September 12, 1958. The Court found that the school board had acted in good faith in crafting and carrying out the integration plan. The justices agreed with the school board that most of the problems with integration stemmed from the governor and his political supporters. However, the Court declined to grant the school board's petition to postpone integration.

The rights of children to attend school and gain an education cannot be "sacrificed or yielded to the violence and disorder" that plagued Little Rock, the Court opined.

The Court based its ruling on the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution and Marbury v. Madison. The highest Court in the land has the final say on interpreting the Constitution, the Court opined. The state government cannot ignore or nullify Supreme Court orders through legislation, the Court added. Therefore, both the governor of Arkansas and the Arkansas school boards were bound by Brown v. Board of Education.

The Justice wrote:

In short, the constitutional rights of children not to be discriminated against in school admission on grounds of race or color declared by this Court in the Brown case can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted "ingeniously or ingenuously."

Article VI, Clause 3 requires public officials to take an oath, swearing that they will uphold the Constitution. In ignoring the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the public officials were breaking their oaths, the Court added.

Impact

Cooper v. Aaron eliminated any doubt that compliance with the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was optional. The Supreme Court's decision reinforced its role at the sole and final interpreter of the Constitution. It also reinforced the strength of federal civil rights laws by noting that the Court's rulings bind all government officials.

Sources

  • “Aaron v. Cooper.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas, https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/aaron-v-cooper-741/.
  • Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958).
  • McBride, Alex. “Cooper v. Aaron (1958): PBS.” Thirteen: Media with Impact, PBS, https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/supremecourt/democracy/landmark_cooper.html.