Most Americans have learned, or at least heard, about the Little Rock Nine courageously walking to their Arkansas high school in 1957, escorted by federal troops past a mob of hate-spewing racists. But few of us know that this flashpoint in American history was preceded — and maybe even made possible — thanks to a similar event in a small farming town a year before.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, it was supposed to mark the end of “separate but equal” in schools. While many schools, primarily those in West and South Texas, complied with the ruling, others remained segregated. Among them was the the town of Mansfield, about 20 miles southeast of Fort Worth, whose residents fought a 10-year battle against integration.
It started on August 27, 1956, when Federal Judge Joe Estes — following months of back and forth between his court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals — issued the state’s first-ever court order for a school to desegregate. Three days later, when Floyd Moody, Nathaniel Jackson, and Charles Moody attempted to register for the fall semester at Mansfield High, Superintendent R.L. Huffman reportedly told one of the students he’d never enter the school. The next day, Governor Allan Shivers sent Texas Rangers to maintain law and order in the event black students tried to enroll again. Defiance of the judge’s orders trickled up and down: Mansfield’s mayor and police chief were complicit, as was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with whom Gov. Shivers was in good standing.
Shivers, like so many white southerners in positions of power, was a fervent supporter of “state’s rights.” Following Brown v. Board of Education, he’d assembled the Texas Advisory Committee on Segregation in Public Schools, a group dedicated to fighting “forced integration” and other “problems.” In fact, in the run-up to Brown v. Board of Education, Shivers sent a letter to the president. “I see in this unusual Supreme Court invitation an attempt to embarrass you and your Attorney General,” he wrote. “There is nothing more local than the public school system. The decision in these cases will have a wide influence in the future economic and political life of our nation, particularly in the 17 southern and southwestern states where this problem is being solved on the local level as it must and should be.”
At the time of the so-called integration “problem,” 56 out of Mansfield’s school district’s 756 students were black, and African Americans were only offered an education through the eighth grade. Public school buses were simply not an option. If black students wanted to continue their education, they had to ride on a Continental Trailways bus to I.M. Terrell High School in Fort Worth.
Tom Pilkington, a Mansfield High student at the time, chronicled the events in his 1998 book, State of Mind: Texas Literature and Culture. “On Thursday, August 30, and Friday, August 31, days set aside for registration, mobs of up to five hundred people gathered on the spacious grounds in front of the old brown-brick high school. The worst of the protests occurred on Friday. The Tarrant County district attorney, down from his headquarters in Fort Worth, was pummeled by a swarm of angry men who openly threatened to use guns if necessary to prevent implementation of the court order.”
Protesters hung black effigies and held racist signs. An Episcopal minister and a photographer were among those physically assaulted by people in the crowd. Downtown stores closed in in solidarity with the protesters, while some anti-integrationists supporters tried to keep civil rights activists out of town.
Following the Mansfield Crisis, government officials, in their quest to find a scapegoat, turned their attention on the NAACP.
Civilians were happy to join in. As a Texan named Early Northrup wrote in a letter to Governor Shivers, “This should be justification for the jailing of all NAACP officials and to throw out the whole organization from the state of Texas for attempting to create riots.”
Texas Attorney General John Ben Shepperd launched an investigation into the NAACP and obtained a temporary restraining order to force all branches to stop operations. He charged the organization with barratry — coercing plaintiffs into filing lawsuits — and accused the group of low-level tax evasion. The state found the perfect venue to try the case; about 130 miles east of Mansfield, Tyler, Texas, was an overwhelmingly pro-segregation city, which would later be faced with its own federal school desegregation order.
After 17 days of testimony, District Judge Otis T. Dunagan placed a temporary restraining order on the NAACP. He’d later place a permanent injunction and impose a list of restrictions that made it exceedingly difficult for the group to continue its work in Texas. Against the wishes of NAACP Secretary Roy Wilson, the board of directors filed an appeal, although it was later withdrawn. Thurgood Marshall, who represented the NAACP at the time and would go on to become the first African American Supreme Court Justice, called the case “the greatest crisis” in the organization’s history.
Marshall was right. Alabama and Virginia would go on to bring similar cases against the NAACP. And a year later, in Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus, emboldened by the results of Texas’s fight against the Mansfield Three and the NAACP, took a stand against integration when the Little Rock Nine attempted to get the education they were entitled to by law. This time, however, Eisenhower sent the National Guard to force integration and protect black students.
Over in Texas, meanwhile, schools continued to defy court orders, particularly in the northeast part of the state.
Integration would not be vigorously pursued in the Lone Star state until 1970, when William Wayne Justice, chief judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District, ordered the Texas Education Agency to assume responsibility of enforcing desegregation in Texas public schools.
Today, Mansfield High School is a lot more diverse, with 37.3 percent white students, 26.5 percent black students, 24.7 percent Hispanic, and 6.4 percent Asian. At least 22 Texas school districts are still monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure they’re following desegregation orders.
The controversy subsided, but Mansfield public schools would not integrate until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, some seven years later.