Published August 17 2011
'I shall not shrink'Story originally appeared Aug. 26, 2007
The enraged crowd simmered with violence as it gathered outside the high school.
All were there for one reason: to keep the nine students from entering the school.
But the teenagers quickly slipped inside the building while the mob was distracted.
“They’ve gone in!” one man bellowed. “Oh, God, the niggers are in the school!”
“They’re in! They’re in!” others yelled. A woman screamed “Oh my God!” and tore at her hair.
State troopers pulled up, parked their cars bumper to bumper, lined up with riot and tear-gas guns. As if on drill, the troopers put on their gas masks. That sobered the crowd – for a moment.
But as the mood outside grew uglier, the black students inside were pulled from the school and driven away as the crowd shrieked its hatred.
It was Sept. 23, 1957, the first day of school integration in Little Rock, Ark., as described in Time magazine.
As the world watched, Little Rock Central High School became a national test of the Brown v. Board of Education decision to end segregation in schools.
And right in the heart of it was a Fargo judge who ordered the integration to proceed.
Fifty years have passed since federal Judge Ronald Davies made the “landmark decision on racial integration in our nation,” as The New York Times referred to it.
The Fargo judge had no idea what he was headed into when he boarded a train on Aug. 25, 1957, to help out the federal court system in Arkansas.
His life soon became filled with threats, and he returned to Fargo in October grayer around the temples.
Davies, who died in 1996, never talked much about what happened down South, even to his own family.
But as the city of Little Rock prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that historical time, officials there and Davies’ family reflect on him and the importance of his court decisions in the heated South.
Learning the law
Ronald Davies was born Dec. 11, 1904, in Crookston, Minn. His interest in the law started at an early age as he tagged along with his grandfather, the police chief in East Grand Forks, Minn.
Davies graduated from Grand Forks (N.D.) Central High School in 1922 and attended the University of North Dakota. He went on to earn a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Davies began his judicial career in 1932 when he was elected a municipal judge in Grand Forks. He entered the Army in 1942 before returning to private practice.
Life changed in 1955 when President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Davies to a federal judgeship, a position that moved the Davies family from Grand Forks to Fargo.
Two years later, Davies found himself in Little Rock, entwined in controversy.
Details about how Davies ended up with the school integration case vary. It wasn’t uncommon for a federal judge to travel within a circuit to help with a backlog of cases. That’s why Davies, then 52, went to Little Rock.
However, some reports say the backlog was created by a judge who retired or resigned. Others say a judge fell ill.
Davies’ daughter thinks the real reason her father was sent goes beyond that.
“Anecdotally, he told me that the local guy was simply dodging the case,” said Jean Davies Schmith, now 61 and living in Guadalajara, Mexico. “He understood, because these men had to live there after their decision was made.”
Davies said as much in a 1987 interview with The Bismarck Tribune.
“No one in the South wanted to decide the pending integration case,” he said. “Even though it was summer, they all had cold feet.”
So on Aug. 25, 1957, Davies left behind his wife, Mildred, and his children: Tim, 23, Jody, 21, Tom, 18, Katia, 16, and Jean, 11.
“I never heard of an integration case at that point. Never heard of it,” he said in a 1979 PBS interview.
Five days after leaving Fargo, he knew all about it and made the first of his Little Rock rulings.
Disorder down South
After the Supreme Court decided in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, the Little Rock School Board said it would comply.
In 1955, the board adopted a plan of gradual integration, with Central High School to be integrated in fall 1957. The plan was later approved by a federal court.
But as the date of integration drew nearer, a local white mother filed suit in chancery court, seeking and receiving a temporary injunction against school integration.
On Aug. 30, Davies ruled the order void and issued his own order against interfering with integration.
But it didn’t end there.
On Sept. 2, Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus ordered National Guard troops to Central High because of “evidence of disorder and threats of disorder,” the Arkansas Gazette reported. Others saw it as Faubus’ way to prevent integration.
When none of the nine black students reported for the first day of school, Davies ordered integration to start the next day.
Black student Melba Pattillo (now Melba Pattillo Beals), then 15 and one of the Little Rock Nine, had a rude awakening when she arrived for school Sept. 4.
She watched as a mob jeered at fellow black student Elizabeth Eckford, who was “in grave danger and no one could get to her to rescue her.”
“We then realized we were at great peril as well,” said Pattillo Beals, now 65 and living near San Francisco.
When members of the mob spotted her, she and her mother ran for their lives and barely escaped.
“Your life was in jeopardy. For a 15-year-old, you don’t think about that. You don’t think about the end of your life. On that particular day, I did,” Pattillo Beals said in a phone interview.
A constitutional duty
After this disastrous start, the Little Rock School Board immediately asked Davies to temporarily suspend its integration plan. Davies again ordered integration to proceed.
“I have a constitutional duty and obligation from which I shall not shrink,” he said in the Sept. 7 ruling. “In an organized society, there can be nothing but ultimate confusion and chaos if court decrees are flaunted.”
Faubus released a statement two days later, criticizing the lack of time Davies spent considering the issue. Davies spent about 90 minutes total on the three hearings, Faubus said.
“These methods of Judge Davies … have, to say the least, given the impression of being high-handed and arbitrary and rendered, apparently, without consideration of the consequences,” Faubus said.
Faubus insisted he was trying to protect black children and white children and preserve the public peace.
By this time, hate mail from Faubus supporters started arriving at the Sam Peck Hotel, where Davies was staying.
Davies told The Wall Street Journal at the time that the hate mail didn’t bother him.
“I’m too old to get bothered. I’ve got an idea I’m going to end up peacefully slipping in the bathtub and cracking my head,” he said.
But he was bothered by the U.S. marshals who followed him for protection – even to Mass.
“I can’t think of a better place to get shot than in church,” Davies said.
Meanwhile, Davies’ family back in Fargo was preparing for daughter Jody’s Sept. 14 wedding and keeping tabs on him through media reports.
Time magazine said Mildred Davies kept “the radio blaring so I’ll know whether they’ve lynched him.”
Jody Davies Eidler, now 71 and living in Wheaton, Ill., said the newspapers were frightening, “talking about fixed bayonets around the school.”
“It was a very stressful time for my mom, and she was really fortunate to have the family surrounding her. They were really very concerned for his heath,” she said.
Eidler was also concerned about whether her dad would make it home for her wedding. He promised he’d be there and was.
Unfortunately, Davies had to return to Little Rock before son Tim’s wedding on Sept. 23. In a telegram, he called it “one of the great disappointments of my life.”
But the 5-foot-1-inch judge who “wouldn’t crack” was back to once again do battle with the governor of Arkansas.
By Sept. 20, the National Guard was still staked out at Central High. The Little Rock Nine had not returned since the disastrous Sept. 4 attempt.
Davies held another court session. The Little Rock Nine attended, as did Faubus’ lawyers.
Pattillo Beals remembers the day clearly. When she saw Faubus’ “entourage,” she immediately felt defeat. But then Davies started talking.
“I could hear that, no, he wasn’t going to roll over like all the other white people had done for Gov. Faubus,” Pattillo Beals said. “By the end of the trial, he had shown me that not every white person was racist.”
Davies once again ordered integration to start immediately and ruled that Faubus didn’t have lawful authority to use the National Guard to prevent black students from entering the school.
So on Sept. 23, the Little Rock Nine once again showed up for class. Although they got in, the angry crowd outside prompted concern, and the students left before the school day ended.
The next day, Eisenhower ordered 101st Airborne Division soldiers to the school. The black students completed their first full day on Sept. 25. Integration had finally begun.
No other choice
By Oct. 1, Davies was back on a train to Fargo. He never returned to Little Rock but always had the fame that came from it, something he didn’t understand.
“I have no delusions about myself. I’m just one of a couple of hundred federal judges all over the country. That’s all,” he told Time magazine.
He didn’t talk about the case much with his family, although they saw the toll it had taken.
Jean Davies Schmith said her father lost about 20 pounds and was “much, much grayer.” Her father told her there was no end once a judge started explaining his decisions.
“I simply was consistent in my ruling and what I believed to be the law, and the rest was a bunch of hoopla,” she recalled of what he told her.
“He always said, ‘I did not force integration. I simply prevented the obstruction of integration.’ ”
In a 1979 PBS interview, Davies appears uncomfortable when his work is praised and explains it matter-of-factly.
“The law was very clear. The schools had to be integrated, and if he (Faubus) had been permitted, for example, not to integrate on the threat of violence, there would have been no integration in the entire South,” Davies said.
“There was no way that the governor of any state was going to interfere with the pronouncement of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
“I don’t see how anyone else could have done it differently and lived with themselves,” Davies said in a 1982 Forum story. “I had no other choice.”
Meanwhile, life was still difficult for the Little Rock Nine in 1957 Little Rock. Although they made it through the school year, it was “unimaginable hell,” Pattillo Beals said.
She still suffers today from the acid that white students threw in her eyes and the constant stepping on her heels.
“It was a profound year in which we all faced death and certainly daily torture,” Pattillo Beals said.
C. Fred Williams, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, thinks some of the anger from whites at the time was due to the neighborhood.
The area was largely working class, which “perceived that they were bearing the brunt of the court order when other schools were not having to integrate,” Williams said.
At the time, Little Rock’s Horace Mann High School remained a black school and the new Hall High School was white, he said.
“Essentially, working-class people … were feeling that the School Board had unduly, unjustly forced the decision on them,” Williams said.
As a result, the Little Rock Nine were bullied mercilessly all year. But despite what she went through, Pattillo Beals doesn’t regret leading the way for integration.
“At the time, I was too young to realize its effects. It turned history around,” she said. “I claimed my equality. I want other young people of color to be able to do the same.”
After Little Rock
In Fargo, Davies served as an active federal judge until 1971, when he took senior status.
Although requests poured in for him to write a book or make appearances after his Little Rock work, Davies turned down the offers.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate. It was exploitation,” Davies told The Forum in 1982.
That same year – 25 years after integration – Faubus was interviewed by The Associated Press. He continued to serve as the state’s governor until 1967 and later became director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
He was confident historians would treat him more objectively than the national press did. He also didn’t want to be remembered for Central High and preferred not to talk about it.
However, he still disdained the 1957 Washington officials, calling them “hypocrites” and saying their children went to segregated schools.
Tom Davies of Fargo, now 68, doesn’t remember his father ever bad-mouthing Faubus. A judge himself, he said his father did what judges are supposed to do during his time in Little Rock.
“I think he had a pretty good grasp at what was at stake for those kids,” Tom Davies said.
Tim Davies, now 73, of Fargo thinks his father was secretly proud of his Little Rock work, even though he always that maintained he was just doing his job.
“Over the years, I’ve kind of come to agree with my dad. He did what anyone would have done and wasn’t worried about the politics of the thing,” he said.
Ronald Davies died in 1996 at the age of 91. In 2001, the courthouse in Grand Forks was named the Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and Courthouse.
All these years later, Davies’ Little Rock decisions are still praised, although some say only scholars would recognize his name.
Williams, of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said Davies’ integration decisions were “huge” and “made all the difference in the world.”
“I think people realize further delay would only have added to the strain that was already there,” he said.
Pattillo Beals still speaks fondly of the white judge who came to Arkansas and stuck up for her.
“Although it would take time, his ruling was profound in that (segregation) could no longer be the way of things,” she said.
Meanwhile, his family remembers him most for his dedication to doing what was right.
“He used to say, ‘All that counts at the end of the day is what you see when you look in the mirror,’ ” Jean Davies Schmith said.
Letters to Davies
Fargo federal Judge Ronald Davies received numerous letters after his court decisions in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. Below are examples of a few. More letters can be found on www.inforum.com.
“Runt: Why don’t you go back to No. Dakota,” wrote one person who signed “Arkansan” on the postcard.
“Your spiteful forced integration is flagrant disregard of constitution for states rights,” George Hantsch of Brooklyn, N.Y., said in a telegram.
With the bad was also the good:
“Here in your hometown, we are all very proud of you … your courage and stand is most commendable,” said Edgar Berg of Grand Forks, N.D.
One letter came from Paris: “I congratulate you on your heroic stand as regards to the Little Rock situation,” wrote Jules Haywood of San Francisco.
Little Rock (Ark.) Central High timeline
- May 17 – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in the public schools unconstitutional.
- May – The Little Rock School Board said it would comply with the decision when the court outlined the method to be followed and the time to be allowed.
- May 24 – The School Board adopted a plan of gradual integration. High school grades would be integrated starting in September 1957, if the new general high school was completed by that time.
During the following six years, the remaining classes would be integrated, with the lower grades the last to be affected. Students would be permitted to transfer to schools where their race was the majority.
- May 31 – U.S. The Supreme Court instructed local school boards and federal district courts to integrate the schools at the earliest possible date.
- Aug. 25 – Fargo Judge Ronald Davies leaves for Little Rock.
- Aug. 28 – Mrs. Clyde Thomason of the Mothers’ League of Little Rock Central High School filed suit in chancery court, seeking a temporary injunction against school integration.
- Aug. 29 – A chancellor granted the temporary injunction, basing it on testimony of Gov. Orval Faubus that integration would lead to violence.
- Aug. 30 – Davies nullified the injunction and ordered the School Board to proceed with integration, with the start of school Sept. 3. He also ordered “all persons in any manner, directly or indirectly” from interfering with the plan.
- Sept. 2 – Faubus ordered the National Guard to Central High School.
- Sept. 3 – The Little Rock Nine students do not appear for the first day of school. Davies ordered integration to start Sept. 4.
- Sept. 4 – The Little Rock Nine students were not allowed to enter the school.
- Sept. 7 – Davies denied the School Board’s request for a temporary suspension of the integration plan.
- Sept. 20 – Davies rules that Faubus was unlawfully interfering with integration by using the National Guard.
- Sept. 23 – An angry mob gathers outside Central High as the Little Rock Nine are escorted inside. The children are later removed for their safety.
- Sept. 24 – Members of the 101st Airborne Division arrive in Little Rock. The Arkansas National Guard is placed under federal orders.
- Sept. 25 – Under troop escort, the Little Rock Nine are escorted back into the school for their first full day of classes.
- Oct. 1 – Davies leaves Little Rock to return to Fargo.
- Faubus temporarily closes schools. Schools close for the 1958-59 year.
- Federal court declares the closings unconstitutional. Schools reopen in August.
Sources: Arkansas Gazette, Sept. 8, 1957; Judge Ronald Davies Day Book 1957; U.S. District Court documents from Sept. 21, 1957; Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site brochure
Readers can reach Forum reporter Teri Finneman at (701) 241-5560