55 Years Ago And Today…the Davies Legacy

This month marks the 55th Anniversary of the desegregation crisis in Little Rock. Fargo U.S. District Court Judge Ronald N. Davies, for whom our third high school building was named, was a central figure in the crisis.

The dates of September 20 – 24 are particularly significant. On September 20, Davies ruled in Civil Case 3113 that Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus had used the National Guard to prevent integration of nine black students into the all-white Little Rock Central High School, not to preserve law and order as he had claimed.

At the request of Justice Department attorneys, Davies issued a preliminary injunction against the governor the following day, forbidding him from interfering with desegregation. Faubus appealed to the Eighth Circuit, but removed the Guard.  The Little Rock Police Department took over policing the school and the grounds.

Two days later, on Monday, September 23, the nine students – today known as the Little Rock Nine – entered Central High through a side door as a crowd of 1,000 mills around in front of the school. A white student escorts them to the principal’s office where they  receive their class assignments. However, when the mob learns the students are inside, tension escalates, and the police fear they will be unable to maintain control.  The black students are escorted out of the school through a side door.

On September 24, President Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division  – the Screaming Eagles – from Ft. Campbell, Ky., to Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas Guard. On September 25, members of the 101st – many of them not much older than the students – escorted the Little Rock Nine to class.

Work today continues in North Dakota, Arkansas, and other places to educate students and the public about desegregation, Judge Davies, and the civil rights movement. Several individuals from the region and the Fargo Public Schools have been active the past two years in preserving the legacy that Davies left behind on this watershed moment in U.S. history.

Next week, at the 2012 Northern Great Plains History Conference in Fargo, retired FPS history teacher and historian Carl Oberholtzer, FPS Grant Writer Connie Nelson, filmmaker Art Phillips, and NDSU researcher Stacy Reikowsky will present “Judge Ronald N. Davies and the Road to Little Rock.” The presentation is part of a larger two-year curriculum project being developed for students in grades 4, 8, and 11 that will be available in Fargo Public Schools in fall 2013. The project will also produce a documentary video for each grade level, “The Road to Little Rock.” A premiere is planned at the Fargo Theater on January 24, and in Little Rock in February. (Little Rock Nine member Dr. Terrence Roberts, who has served as an adviser on the project, is planning to attend the Fargo event.)

Judge Davies’ alma mater, the University of North Dakota, has also become involved in discussions with the Davies curriculum project team. Project members worked with the Davies family to secure a gavel used by Judge Ronald Davies (and later by his son, retired Fargo municipal court judge Tom Davies) for permanent display in the new UND Alumni Center’s Heritage Hall.

Funding for the $200,000 curriculum project has been primarily from grants and donors. To date, project team members have raised over half of the cost of the project.