Cooper v. Aaron eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

A long line of armed federal troops surround students entering Little Rock's Central High School. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. A long line of armed federal troops surround students entering Little Rock's Central High School. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
Arkansas governor Orval Faubus holds a photo of federal troops with drawn bayonets hustling students from Central High School. Faubus accused the government of unwarranted use of force to integrate the school in Little Rock. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED Arkansas governor Orval Faubus holds a photo of federal troops with drawn bayonets hustling students from Central High School. Faubus accused the government of unwarranted use of force to integrate the school in Little Rock. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Supreme Court decision

By: U.S. Supreme Court

Date: September 15, 1958

Source: U.S. Supreme Court. Cooper v. Aaron. 358 U.S. 1 (1958). Available online at ; website home page: (accessed March 11, 2003).

About the Organization: The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891–1974) made some of the most revolutionary decisions of the Court's history, particularly in the areas of civil rights and the Court's powers over federal and state authorities. Presiding over some of the strongest personalities ever to sit on the bench, Warren, within a year of becoming Chief Justice, led the way to such groundbreaking decisions as Brown v. Board of Education.


By the 1950s, segregation in the Southern schools was drawing fire from a number of areas. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won some legal victories against discrimination and school segregation, initially at the graduate school level, in the first years of the decade. The organization won its biggest victory on the educational front in 1954, with the case Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court held that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and thus unconstitutional. In 1955, in a second Brown decision, the Court issued a plan to implement the desegregation of public schools with "all deliberate speed." Southern legislators pledged "massive resistance" to the enforcement of desegregation, and most Southern congressmen joined in signing a Southern Manifesto that called Brown an unconstitutional decision. They claimed that the Court had overstepped its powers in making the decision and that it did not have the right to enforce its decisions within the states. In fact, at that time the Supreme Court had no real enforcement agency. Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower (served 1953–1961) did not wish to interfere with federal enforcement, the progress in integrating American schools was slow.

A showdown between the forces of the Court and the state authorities occurred in 1957, when Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, backed by the Arkansas National Guard, refused to allow nine African American students to enter Little Rock Central High School. When the courts ordered Faubus to step aside, a mob blocked the students' entry. Only after Eisenhower reluctantly dispatched federal troops were the students able to enter the school building. Federalized National Guardsmen remained on site to protect the children and ensure their passage. The Little Rock school board then sought an injunction in federal court to delay any further desegregation, saying that the public had become so inflamed by the situation, it had become impossible to carry on with basic schooling at Central High. They asked to remove the eight remaining African American students from the high school and place them in a segregated school. When the District Court granted the postponement of the desegregation program, a group of African Americans appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court. The Supreme Court then met in a special session to confirm the appellate decision, resulting in the case Cooper v. Aaron. The decision responded to the schools board's request for a stay of the desegregation program, but also to the actions of the state of Arkansas, which had claimed it was not bound by the Brown decision, since it had not been party to it. The state had also argued that its governor had the same power to interpret the Constitution as did the Supreme Court, thereby challenging the power of the Court.


The Court ordered Little Rock High School to desegregate immediately. This decision was signed by all of the justices, in order to emphasize their resolve on the issue. The opinion basically restates the decision made in Brown and affirms that the opinions of the Court are to be followed. The justices announced with this decision that it was the Supreme Court's duty and function to be the nation's interpreter of the Constitution. After Cooper, the legality of segregation was no longer in question. The

Court continued to order desegregation to be implemented in case after case that appeared before it. Although the process was very slow at first, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government much more power to force integration and compliance with the Supreme Court's rulings.

The Warren Court broke new ground by affirming its own powers under the Constitution. Since there were many who were not pleased with the Court's decisions, the Court was—and still is—criticized for exerting too much power over the other branches of government. But many praised the Warren Court for its adherence to the principles of equality and for its efforts to ensure the constitutional rights of every American, even when that meant intervening in unconstitutional state policies.

Primary Source: Cooper v. Aaron [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: The Court, in reviewing the series of events leading to Cooper, shows that certain officials of the state of Arkansas were to blame for the disruption of education in Central High. The Court holds that the civil rights of African Americans are not to be denied because the governor and legislature of Arkansas have resisted rulings they are sworn to uphold and affirms the legal principles behind Brown—and behind the Supreme Court's powers.

Opinion of the Court by The Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Black, Mr. Justice Frankfurter, Mr. Justice Douglas, Mr. Justice Burton, Mr. Justice Clark, Mr. Justice Harlan, Mr. Justice Brennan, and Mr. Justice Whittaker.

As this case reaches us it raises questions of the highest importance to the maintenance of our federal system of government. It necessarily involves a claim by the Governor and Legislature of a State that there is no duty on state officials to obey federal court orders resting on this Court's considered interpretation of the United States Constitution. Specifically it involves actions by the Governor and Legislature of Arkansas upon the premise that they are not bound by our holding in Brown v. Board of Education.… That holding was that the Fourteenth Amendment forbids States to use their governmental powers to bar children on racial grounds from attending schools where there is state participation through any arrangement, management, funds or property. We are urged to uphold a suspension of the Little Rock School Board's plan to do away with segregated public schools in Little Rock until state laws and efforts to upset and nullify our holding in Brown v. Board of Education have been further challenged and tested in the courts. We reject these contentions.…

The following are the facts and circumstances so far as necessary to show how the legal questions are presented.…

Nine Negro children were scheduled for admission in September 1957 to Central High School, which has more than two thousand students. Various administrative measures, designed to assure the smooth transition of this first stage of desegregation, were undertaken.

On September 2, 1957, the day before these Negro students were to enter Central High, the school authorities were met with drastic opposing action on the part of the Governor of Arkansas who dispatched units of the Arkansas National Guard to the Central High School grounds and placed the school "off limits" to colored students. As found by the District Court in subsequent proceedings, the Governor's action had not been requested by the school authorities, and was entirely unheralded.…

On the morning of … September 4, 1957, the Negro children attempted to enter the high school but, as the District Court later found, units of the Arkansas National Guard "acting pursuant to the Governor's order, stood shoulder to shoulder at the school grounds and thereby forcibly prevented the 9 Negro students … from entering," as they continued to do every school day during the following three weeks.…

That same day, September 4, 1957, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas was requested by the District Court to begin an immediate investigation in order to fix responsibility for the interference with the orderly implementation of the District Court's direction to carry out the desegregation program. Three days later, September 7, the District Court denied a petition of the School Board and the Superintendent of Schools for an order temporarily suspending continuance of the program.

Upon completion of the United States Attorney's investigation, he and the Attorney General of the United States, at the District Court's request, entered the proceedings and filed a petition on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, to enjoin the Governor of Arkansas and officers of the Arkansas National Guard from further attempts to prevent obedience to the court's order. After hearings on the petition, the District Court found that the School Board's plan had been obstructed by the Governor through the use of National Guard troops, and granted a preliminary injunction on September 20, 1957, enjoining the Governor and the officers of the Guard from preventing the attendance of Negro children at Central High School, and from otherwise obstructing or interfering with the orders of the court in connection with the plan.… The National Guard was then withdrawn from the school.

The next school day was Monday, September 23, 1957. The Negro children entered the high school that morning under the protection of the Little Rock Police Department and members of the Arkansas State Police. But the officers caused the children to be removed from the school during the morning because they had difficulty controlling a large and demonstrating crowd which had gathered at the high school.… On September 25, however, the President of the United States dispatched federal troops to Central High School and admission of the Negro students to the school was thereby effected. Regular army troops continued at the high school until November 27, 1957. They were then replaced by federalized National Guardsmen who remained throughout the balance of the school year. Eight of the Negro students remained in attendance at the school throughout the school year.

We come now to the aspect of the proceedings presently before us. On February 20, 1958, the School Board and the Superintendent of Schools filed a petition in the District Court seeking a postponement of their program for desegregation. Their position in essence was that because of extreme public hostility, which they stated had been engendered largely by the official attitudes and actions of the Governor and the Legislature, the maintenance of a sound educational program at Central High School, with the Negro students in attendance, would be impossible. The Board therefore proposed that the Negro students already admitted to the school be withdrawn and sent to segregated schools, and that all further steps to carry out the Board's desegregation program be postponed for a period later suggested by the Board to be two and one-half years.

After a hearing the District Court granted the relief requested by the Board. Among other things the court found that the past year at Central High School had been attended by conditions of "chaos, bedlam and turmoil." …

The District Court's judgment was dated June 20, 1958. The Negro respondents appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and also sought there a stay of the District Court's judgment.… The Court of Appeals did not act on the petition for a stay, but, on August 18, 1958, after convening in special session on August 4 and hearing the appeal, reversed the District Court, 257 F.2d 33. On August 21, 1958, the Court of Appeals stayed its mandate to permit the School Board to petition this Court for certiorari.… Recognizing the vital importance of a decision of the issues in time to permit arrangements to be made for the 1958–1959 school year … we convened in Special Term on August 28, 1958, and heard oral argument on the respondents' motions, and also argument of the Solicitor General who, by invitation, appeared for the United States as amicus curiae, and asserted that the Court of Appeals' judgment was clearly correct on the merits, and urged that we vacate its stay forthwith.… On September 12, 1958, as already mentioned, we unanimously affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.…

In affirming the judgment of the Court of Appeals which reversed the District Court we have accepted without reservation the position of the School Board,

the Superintendent of Schools, and their counsel that they displayed entire good faith in the conduct of these proceedings and in dealing with the unfortunate and distressing sequence of events which has been outlined. We likewise have accepted the findings of the District Court as to the conditions at Central High School during the 1957–1958 school year, and also the findings that the educational progress of all the students, white and colored, of that school has suffered and will continue to suffer if the conditions which prevailed last year are permitted to continue.

The significance of these findings, however, is to be considered in light of the fact, indisputably revealed by the record before us, that the conditions they depict are directly traceable to the actions of legislators and executive officials of the State of Arkansas, taken in their official capacities, which reflect their own determination to resist this Court's decision in the Brown case and which have brought about violent resistance to that decision in Arkansas. In its petition for certiorari filed in this Court, the School Board itself describes the situation in this language: "The legislative, executive, and judicial departments of the state government opposed the desegregation of Little Rock schools by enacting laws, calling out troops, making statements villifying federal law and federal courts, and failing to utilize state law enforcement agencies and judicial processes to maintain public peace."

One may well sympathize with the position of the Board in the face of the frustrating conditions which have confronted it, but, regardless of the Board's good faith, the actions of the other state agencies responsible for those conditions compel us to reject the Board's legal position.…

The constitutional rights of respondents are not to be sacrificed or yielded to the violence and disorder which have followed upon the actions of the Governor and Legislature.… Thus law and order are not here to be preserved by depriving the Negro children of their constitutional rights. The record before us clearly establishes that the growth of the Board's difficulties to a magnitude beyond its unaided power to control is the product of state action. Those difficulties, as counsel for the Board forthrightly conceded on the oral argument in this Court, can also be brought under control by state action.

The controlling legal principles are plain. The command of the Fourteenth Amendment is that no "State" shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.… Thus the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment extend to all action of the State denying equal protection of the laws; whatever the agency of the State taking the action.… 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." …

What has been said, in the light of the facts developed, is enough to dispose of the case. However, we should answer the premise of the actions of the Governor and Legislature that they are not bound by our holding in the Brown case. It is necessary only to recall some basic constitutional propositions which are settled doctrine.

Article VI of the Constitution makes the Constitution the "supreme Law of the Land." In 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for a unanimous Court, referring to the Constitution as "the fundamental and paramount law of the nation," declared in the notable case of Marbury v. Madison,1 Cranch 137, 177, that "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." This decision declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by this Court and the Country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system. It follows that the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment enunciated by this Court in the Brown case is the supreme law of the land, and Art. VI of the Constitution makes it of binding effect on the States "any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwith-standing." Every state legislator and executive and judicial officer is solemnly committed by oath taken pursuant to Art. VI, cl. 3, "to support this Constitution." Chief Justice Taney, speaking for a unanimous Court in 1859, said that this requirement reflected the framers' "anxiety to preserve it [the Constitution] in full force, in all its powers, and to guard against resistance to or evasion of its authority, on the part of a State." …

No state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it.…

It is, of course, quite true that the responsibility for public education is primarily the concern of the States, but it is equally true that such responsibilities, like all other state activity, must be exercised consistently with federal constitutional requirements as they apply to state action. The Constitution created a government dedicated to equal justice under law. The Fourteenth Amendment embodied and emphasized that ideal. State support of segregated schools through any arrangement, management, funds, or property cannot be squared with the Amendment's command that no State shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. The right of a student not to be segregated on racial grounds in schools so maintained is indeed so fundamental and pervasive that it is embraced in the concept of due process of law.… The basic decision in Brownwas unanimously reached by this Court only after the case had been briefed and twice argued and the issues had been given the most serious consideration. Since the first Brownopinion three new Justices have come to the Court. They are at one with the Justices still on the Court who participated in that basic decision as to its correctness, and that decision is now unanimously reaffirmed. The principles announced in that decision and the obedience of the States to them, according to the command of the Constitution, are indispensable for the protection of the freedoms guaranteed by our fundamental charter for all of us. Our constitutional ideal of equal justice under law is thus made a living truth.

Further Resources


Beals, Melba. Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.

Counts, I. Wilmer. A Life Is More Than a Moment: The Desegregation of Little Rock's Central High. (With essays by Will D. Campbell, Ernest Dumas, Robert S. McCord.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Cray, Ed. Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Powe, L.A. Scot. The Warren Court and American Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

Roy, Beth. Bitters in the Honey: Tales of Hope and Disappointment Across Divides of Race and Time. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

Schwartz, Bernard. The Warren Court: A Retrospective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Urofsky, Melvin I. The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2001.


Little Rock Central High School 40th Anniversary. Available online at (accessed March 12, 2003).