Cooper v. Aaron

In Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 ( 1958 ), the US Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution did not permit the states to nullify the authority of the federal government to enforce a constitutional right, even if the duly elected officials of a state disagreed with that decision. In doing so, the Court affirmed its long-standing position, dating back to McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 ( 1819 ), that its decisions are the law of the land and that states may not invoke the Tenth Amendment as a shield against the supremacy clause of Article VI. The Court also interpreted Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 ( 1803


Cooper can be understood as the bookend to Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 ( 1954 ), the landmark decision of the Court that declared state-mandated racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, and Brown v. Board of Education II, 349 U.S. 294 ( 1955 ), which required all schools in violation of the first Brown ruling to desegregate their schools with “all deliberate speed.” That phrase was inserted into the Brown II opinion to assure the South, primarily, that the Court understood the difficulties of such a massive social and political reorganization of its school system. It quickly became clear that the South did not view the Court's gesture as an olive branch to encourage gradual, if slow, desegregation. Rather, the South resisted integration with all the tools at its disposal, including force. Turning the promise of Brown into a meaningful guarantee, enforced by the lower courts and supported by public opinion, soon proved a much more difficult enterprise than the justices ever imagined.

Southern resistance to Brown was fierce. In 1956 nineteen senators and eighty-two representatives—all from the eleven former Confederate states—signed and issued the Southern Manifesto, which denounced Brown as an “unwarranted” decision driven by the Court's “personal, political and social ideas for the established law of the land.” Only three southern senators refused to sign the manifesto, including Lyndon B. Johnson ( 1908–1973 ) of Texas. Later, Johnson, as president ( 1963–1969 ), spearheaded the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By 1958, lopsided majorities in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia had passed legislation or state constitutional amendments that, either on their own or in some combination, prohibited integration, required or permitted the abolition of public schools, abolished compulsory school attendance, or enacted “voucher” programs to subsidize private education. Most federal courts in the South, which, under Brown II, were responsible for overseeing school desegregation, interpreted “all deliberate speed” as “any conceivable delay.” Underneath the surface of the legal maneuvering was the ever-present threat of violence against African Americans who insisted upon their right to an equal education.

By the end of the 1956–1957 school year, the Little Rock, Arkansas, school board had developed a plan to desegregate its schools, one that was approved by the federal court responsible for enforcing the Brown ruling. This was better known as the “Blossom Plan,” so named for the Arkansas superintendent of schools, Virgil Blossom, who advocated integration and compliance with Brown. In 1955 the Little Rock school board passed the original version of the Blossom Plan, which called for desegregation to begin at the elementary-school level in fairly aggressive form, and then work its way up through middle and high school. After opposition from white parents, Little Rock decided to modify its desegregation plan to begin the token integration of Central High School beginning in September 1957.

In 1956 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit against the Little Rock school board on behalf of almost three dozen African American students who had attempted to register in various all-white schools. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the modified Blossom Plan met the requirements of Brown, and that Central High School must admit the black students who had attempted to register there. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ( 1910–1994 ) then went on local television the evening before the first day of school to announce that he would deploy the Arkansas National Guard to turn away any black student who attempted to enter Central High. Of the nine African American students who were scheduled to integrate the school, only one, Elizabeth Eckford, did not get the message that the soldiers were there to prevent her from attending school and not to protect her. Eckford was met at the school by white students shouting racial epithets and guardsmen pointing bayonet-tipped rifles at her. The scene made national news, leading President Dwight D. Eisenhower ( 1890–1969 ) to deliver a televised address to calm matters. He dispatched one thousand federal troops and federalized the Arkansas guardsmen to protect the “Little Rock Nine,” as the group of students came to be known. The students began attending Central High in late September.


In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's school desegregation ruling, federalized Arkansas National Guard troops, on orders of President Dwight Eisenhower, protect African American students as they leave Little Rock's Central High School at the end of the school day, October 3, 1957.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's school desegregation ruling, federalized Arkansas National Guard troops, on orders of President Dwight Eisenhower, protect African American students as they leave Little Rock's Central High School at the end of the school day, October 3, 1957.

Chief Justice Earl Warren ( 1891–1974 ), who had authored the Court's opinions in Brown I and II, also made clear that “the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment enunciated by this Court in the Brown case [was] the supreme law of the land” (358 U.S. at 18). Almost as if he was speaking directly to Governor Faubus and the Little Rock school board, Warren then wrote that “no state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his solemn oath to support it” (358 U.S. at 18). Concurring, Justice Felix Frankfurter ( 1882–1965 ) further emphasized the importance of the rule of law in a democratic society, noting that if the Court sided with the school board it would “enthrone official lawlessness, and lawlessness, if not checked, is the precursor of anarchy…. For those in authority thus to defy the law of the land is profoundly subversive not only of our constitutional system, but of the presuppositions of a democratic society” (358 U.S. at 22).

To underscore the importance of its central holding, all nine justices signed the Court's opinion in Cooper, the first and last time that ever happened. And that holding was twofold: first, the decisions of the Supreme Court are binding on the states and localities subject to them; and second, it settled any skepticism about the Court's commitment to its decision in Brown. Although it would take the 1964 Civil Rights Act and such decisions as Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430 ( 1968 ), to kick-start the de-segregation process in a truly meaningful way, Cooper left no doubt on which side the Court stood in the burgeoning African American civil rights movement.

SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education ; Constitutional Authority ; Frankfurter, Felix ; Race Discrimination ; Supremacy Clause ; Warren, Earl .


Gregg Ivers
School of Public Affairs
American University