Cooper v. Aaron

In Cooper v. Aaron (1958), the U.S. Supreme Court responded to an early skirmish in the battle over school segregation, in which nine students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the 1957–1958 school year had to confront the fierce resistance of Governor Faubus and the state legislature. The Court ruled that the school’s desegregation plan should go forward despite the conflict and that the governor and legislators were acting unconstitutionally to prevent the African American youngsters from getting an equal education.

Facts of the Case

Throughout the month of September 1957, starting with the first day African American students attended the school, Faubus created a great deal of resistance, including taking steps to bar those students from entering school on that first day of class and subsequently by using the National Guard troops to impede their entry. Faubus was not acting at the direct request of school officials, who were implementing a judicially approved desegregation plan.

As bitter criticism of the school board’s plan and of the educational officials themselves grew, the board asked the African American students to discontinue their attendance until the legal situation was resolved. The board then petitioned the federal trial court to postpone the plan until the controversy was resolved. Meanwhile, Governor Faubus continued his offensive of blatant resistance with the National Guard at his disposal for three weeks.

A federal trial court in Arkansas granted a delay in the implementation of a previously judicially approved desegregation plan, but the Eighth Circuit reversed that order, and Faubus was forced to discontinue obstructing or interfering with the orders of the court in connection with the plan. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Eighth Circuit, finding that the actions of the governor and legislature unconstitutionally deprived the African American students of their right to equal educational opportunities under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court’s Ruling

At the outset of its opinion, the Supreme Court noted that Cooper raised important questions regarding the maintenance of the federal system of government. The Court explained that this acknowledgment essentially grew out of the claims of the governor and state legislature that they had no duty to obey federal court orders that were based on the Supreme Court’s considered interpretation of the federal Constitution. Specifically, the governor and legislature of Arkansas argued that they were not bound by the Court’s holding in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

According to the Supreme Court, at issue in Cooper, in the context of the Fourteenth Amendment, was whether the good faith efforts of members of the school board and district superintendent, in light of strong actions of resistance of other state officials (mainly the governor and legislators), constituted a constitutionally acceptable legal excuse for delay in implementing the desegregation plan for the public schools. The board members also claimed that the actions of the governor and legislators were responsible for conditions that allegedly made prompt implementation of the desegregation plan impossible. The board’s reason for postponement in this proceeding stated that

the effect of that action [of the Governor] was to harden the core of opposition to the Plan and cause many persons who theretofore had reluctantly accepted the Plan to believe there was some power in the State of Arkansas which, when exerted, could nullify the Federal law and permit disobedience of the decree of this [District] Court. (p. 10)

The Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment forbids states from using their governmental powers to bar children on racial grounds from attending schools where there is state participation through any arrangement, management, funds, or property. At the same time, the Court reasoned that the governor and state legislature were bound by the Court’s prior decision in Brown that called for an end to state-enforced racial segregation in public schools. The Court ruled that the failure to follow Brown amounted to an unconstitutional denial of equal protection of laws.

The Supreme Court refused to uphold the suspension of Little Rock’s plan to eradicate segregated public schools until such time as state laws and efforts to nullify its judgment in Brown had been subject to further judicial challenges and tests. The Court concluded that from the perspective of the Fourteenth Amendment, because members of the school board and the district superintendent stood as agents of the state, their good faith did not constitute a legal excuse for delay in implementing a desegregation plan for schools insofar as other state officials, in the form of the governor and various legislators, were making it difficult or impossible for them to do so.

Mark A. Gooden

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Equal Protection Analysis; Fourteenth Amendment

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