1958 September 12

“The Constitution is Supreme:” Cooper v. Aaron


In the landmark case of Cooper v. Aaron, decided on this day, the Supreme Court asserted the supremacy of the Constitution as the law of the land and the authority of the federal courts to enforce lawful court orders. The case arose from the 1957 conflict over the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the face of opposition from local officials and a pro-segregation mob (September 23, 1957). On September 25, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock to ensure integration and maintain order. Local officials continued to resist integration, however, which led to the Supreme Court decision on this day. The Little Rock crisis was one of the major civil rights events of the 1950s, causing embarrassment for the U.S. around the world.

Important as it was in terms of constitutional law, Cooper v. Aaron did not end the school integration crisis in Little Rock. The decision applied only to orders from the lower courts. In the summer of 1958, segregationists who controlled the Little Rock school board voted to close the schools rather than integrate them. Thus, in what is known as “the lost year,” the city’s public schools were closed for the 1958–1959 academic year. They reopened in the fall of 1959 after citizens and business leaders, concerned about the impact of closed public schools on the city’s future, captured control of the school board and reopened the schools.

The Supreme Court: “No state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it.

Learn more: Tony Freyer, Little Rock on Trial: Cooper v. Aaron and School Desegregation (2007)

Listen to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1950-1959/1958/1958_1

Watch a video on the 1957 Little Rock school integration crisis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xERXusiEszs

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