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Opposing Segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas

Lawrence Bush
August 11, 2017

Little Rock, Arkansas began to integrate its public schools on this date in 1959 while segregationists rallied at the State Capitol and then marched to Central High School, where police arrested twenty-one of them. This followed the “Lost Year” of 1958, in which Governor Orval Faubus closed the public schools to avoid federally-ordered school integration; to head off a repeat performance, the new board of education, from which several arch-segregationists had been deposed, opened the high schools a month early in 1959. According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Life, the Jewish community of Little Rock, dating back to the 1830s, had been threatened by the Capitol Citizens Council with “a boycott of the large Jewish-owned department stores” unless they ceased “newspaper advertising in the pro-integration Arkansas Gazette. In the high schools, Jewish children faced similar pressure from their classmates to oppose integration, and many left for schools in other states to avoid the choice between compromising their convictions or their safety. A spate of synagogue bombings throughout the South compounded the fears of the Little Rock Jewish community.” Nevertheless, Rabbi Ira Sanders -- who had attempted to integrate the School of Social Work at the University of Arkansas that he headed from its founding in the late 1920s -- served as a courageous voice for integration during the public school turmoil, as did his newly arrived rabbinical peer, Irwin Groner. In addition, a “group of bold Little Rock women helped to shatter the silence that had descended upon many of the pro-integrationist voices” during the Lost Year by organizing the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC). “The membership of the organization swelled to over sixteen hundred, including much of the Jewish community. . . Their efforts ultimately contributed to a reshuffling of the school board and the ousting of the segregationist elements. In June of 1959, a federal court declared the school closing unconstitutional, and the following fall a fully integrated Little Rock school system opened for classes.”

“WEC generated a strident opposition to the segregationist voices in Little Rock. Despite the threat of boycotts against businesses owned by their husbands and families, these brave women pursued their campaign. Irene Samuel, the executive secretary, was not Jewish herself, but was married to a local Jewish physician and raised both her children as active participants of B’nai Israel. Many temple members followed her example; Josephine Menkus, president of the local chapter of National Council of Jewish Women, teamed up with Irene to direct WEC propaganda efforts. Jane Mendel operated the group’s secret phone tree list, which could disseminate important news to its large membership in a short period of time.” --Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Life

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.