“The men have failed… it’s time to call out the women.” — Adolphine Fletcher Terry, founder of the WEC
It was the fall of 1958; public education in Little Rock was under siege. The segregationist governor was invoking a law hastily passed by the state legislature, closing all four of the city’s high schools in a desperate attempt to halt desegregation. (While it was unconstitutional to keep blacks out of the white schools, it was perfectly legal to close the schools down entirely.) Segregationist intimidation and threats of economic boycotts silenced the city’s civic and business leaders. Into this leadership void stepped the women of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools. A group of respectable middle-class white women, faced with the prospect of no schools as well as the further loss of their city’s good name, turned militant. Fifty-eight of them attended this initial meeting and vowed to work to reopen the schools under the district’s desegregation plan.
The governor set an election date for September 27 for the voters of Little Rock to decide whether they wanted integrated schools or no schools. Infuriated by the lack of response from business and community leaders, mothers rose up and united their voices to try to salvage their children’s education. The Women’s Emergency Committee became a highly effective organization that bombarded the city with ads, fliers and statements challenging Governor Faubus and the segregationists’ action.
In spite of their efforts, Little Rock’s citizens voted almost three to one against integration. Governor Orval Faubus closed all high schools in Little Rock, locking out 3,665 black and white students from a public education, and locking in almost 200 teachers and administrators to contracts to serve empty classrooms. Some students moved in with relatives or friends in other towns to attend school, but many received no instruction at all during the year. 1958-59 is commonly referred to as “The Lost Year.”
It was a period unmatched in its peculiarities. Students had no schools to attend, but football continued at all campuses by suggestion of the Governor. (Governor Faubus accused the Board of trying to arouse public sentiment against him in canceling the popular football programs.)
While their efforts made them targets for harassment, the WEC persevered. At peak membership, it numbered about 2000 women who were largely inexperienced in politics but who became articulate, confident promoters of the public schools. A documentary about the WEC has a title that makes me smile: “The Giants Wore White Gloves.” These giants were ultimately successful: Little Rock’s high schools re-opened the following fall.
Integration involving substantial numbers of students did not occur until the 1970’s.
Material for this post was found on the NPS website for the Central High School National Historic Site.
Your intrepid blogger has spent a few days in Little Rock visiting her parents while en route to Utah. This post has nothing to do with Arches National Park. Become of fan of your local history, wherever you are!