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Little Rock on Trial

Cooper v. Aaron and School Desegregation

Tony A. Freyer

September 2007
274 pages, 5-1⁄2 x 8-1⁄2
Landmark Law Cases and American Society
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1535-3, $35.00
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1536-0, $17.95

book cover imageAmericans 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.

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.

“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, 1993–2004

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.


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