In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that "separate but equal" public schools were unconstitutional and ordered an end to segregation in schools across the U.S.
In the South there was resistance — often violent resistance. But desegregation also happened peacefully in many Southern cities. There were plenty of city and school officials, as well as ordinary citizens, who knew segregation couldn't hold out forever.
They may not have entirely liked it, but they complied with the law.
That's pretty much what everybody thought would happen in Little Rock. Arkansas' capitol city was seen as a moderate Southern metropolis, and Gov. Orville Faubus was regarded as more progressive than the firebrand segregationists who dominated states such as Mississippi and Alabama.
In 1955, the Little Rock School Board adopted a plan to integrate the city's schools. It would begin in the fall of 1957, when nine black students would attend all-white Central High. The plan was praised as a model of desegregation.
Then came Sept. 4, 1957. School was to start that day, 57 years ago this week. Opponents of desegregation came out to protest. And Gov. Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to keep the nine black students from entering Central High, setting off a crisis that made national headlines, pitted a governor against a president and is still remembered as one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement.
Why did Faubus do it? Most analysts agree it was a political decision. Faubus was facing a tough re-election campaign in 1958 and thought throwing in with the segregationists would give him a better shot.
If so his read was dead on. Though eventually forced to back down on segregation, Faubus continued in the governor's mansion until 1967.
But no man can stand in the way of time. Arkansas schools were desegregated and Jim Crow laws cast aside.
Central High is now a National Historic Landmark and the site of a civil rights museum. And Faubus' name is synonymous with racial intolerance to many Americans.
Pity. If he had only let the school board's plan take effect, he could have had a much finer legacy.
Copyright Texarkana (Ark.) Gazette. Distributed by the Associated Press.