• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court held that fear of violence did not provide justification for postponing school desegregation, and it also affirmed that its constitutional interpretations were legally binding on governors and state legislators.

In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of the public schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The next year, in Brown II,[case]Brown II[Brown II] the Court ordered desegregation to proceed “with all deliberate speed.” The Little RockLittle Rock, Arkansas, school segregation crisis crisis of 1957-1958 occurred after a federal district judge approved a desegregation plan that scheduled nine African American students to enter Little Rock’s Central High School in September, 1957. When classes began, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus and the state legislature acted on the premise that they had no legal obligation to enforce the Brown decision. Confronted with an open defiance to federal authority, President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to restore order and to enforce the desegregation order.Judicial powers;Cooper v. Aaron[Cooper v. Aaron]Desegregation;Cooper v. Aaron[Cooper v. Aaron]

President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not hesitate to send armed troops to enforce court-imposed desegregation orders.

(National Archives)

With tensions in Little Rock continuing in 1958, the school board asked the district judge to withdraw the African AmericanAfrican Americans;Little Rock, Arkansas[Little Rock, Arkansas] students from the school and to postpone desegregation until September, 1960. The judge accepted the proposal. In expedited proceedings, the Supreme Court reversed the judge’s ruling. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.Brennan, William J., Jr.;Cooper v. Aaron[Cooper v. Aaron], prepared a draft of an opinion, which was then reworked and signed by all nine justices. The joint opinion held that postponement was unacceptable because it would violate the constitutional rights of the African American students. In addition, the Court declared that “the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution,” meaning that state governments must recognize the Brown holding as “the supreme law of the land.” Never before had the Court expressed the doctrine of judicial supremacy in such strong terms.

Although President Eisenhower personally disagreed with the Brown decision, he made it manifestly clear that he would use his executive powers to enforce the decrees and interpretations of the Court. Confident of presidential enforcement, the justices were encouraged to take a firm stand in the Cooper ruling. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that Congress provided statutory support for the desegregation effort.

Brown v. Board of Education

Equal protection clause

Judicial powers

Nullification

Race and discrimination

School integration and busing

States’ rights and state sovereignty

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