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Samuel M. Levine & the Fight to Desegregate Little Rock Central High School

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

Samuel M. Levine was a Jewish politician and lawyer from Pine Bluff who took on the segregationist Legislature in an effort to desegregate Little Rock high schools even though it meant the end of his political career.

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In September 1957, the Little Rock School Board enacted a tentative plan to begin desegregating Little Rock schools by placing the first Black students in the all-white Central High School. Though this plan was supported by a federal district court, it was met with a great deal of resistance by Arkansas segregationists and Little Rock governor Orval Eugene Faubus. Although he was known as a racial moderate, Governor Faubus realized he had little chance of winning reelection in 1958 against a white supremacist candidate. Faubus adopted more racist policies, especially concerning the integration of Little Rock’s public schools. He took a stand against “forced integration” by blocking the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School.

On September 2, 1957, Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard, claiming he was preserving the peace by preventing nine Black students (also known as the Little Rock Nine) from entering Central High School. A federal judge soon ordered the removal of the National Guard. Unfortunately, a mob of segregationists prevented the Little Rock Nine from entering the building. In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and dispatched Army troops to restore order and enforce the court’s ruling. The troops stayed through the school year.

In the summer of 1958, the Little Rock School Board requested a delay in further implementing desegregation at Central High from the federal court system. Faubus was also elected governor for a third term. On August 26, 1958, he called for an extraordinary session of the Arkansas General Assembly. During this session, a series of laws to stall the desegregation of Little Rock's schools was passed. Act 4 allowed the closure of any school threatened with racial integration. Act 5 allowed state monies to follow any displaced student to the school of Faubus’ choice, whether privately or publicly funded.

In 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court met in a special session. On September 12, they ordered the immediate integration of Little Rock Central High School and stated that Little Rock must continue its desegregation plan for all its public schools. The same day, Faubus signed into law all the bills passed by the Arkansas General Assembly. On Monday, September 15, he closed all four high schools in Little Rock, disrupting the lives of nearly 4,000 students and their families. Act 4 required voter approval, so Faubus invoked the new law only for Little Rock high schools threatened with desegregation. On September 27, ballots for reopening closed schools read, “For racial integration of all schools within the Little Rock School District,” and by a three-to-one margin, voters kept schools closed.

In 1959, Samuel M. Levine stood as one man against the segregationist majority. Levine was a Jewish politician and lawyer from Pine Bluff. From the 1930s to the 1950s, he served in the state legislature as both a representative and senator. During the civil rights era, Levine was an outspoken advocate for integration. He supported the desegregation of Arkansas school after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case in 1954.

He took a stand in the preservation of public education in Arkansas that ultimately ended his political career. On the last day of the legislative session, he launched a filibuster against the bill to pack Little Rock’s school board with segregationist representatives. He knew that a major highway bill followed his speech. So, if he talked long enough the school board’s bill would be shelved to make way for it. Levine talked and talked and talked, making sure that is exactly what happened. In his last and longest speech as a legislator, he spoke calmly, formally, and politely while the other representatives jeered at him.

After his filibuster, Levine chose to retire from the Legislature, knowing that he could not run again. In 1960, though, he ran for a seat as a chancery judge. Though Levine was heavily supported by the Pine Bluff bar association, he lost the primary to an anti-Semitic candidate by just 10 votes. The morning after the election, Levine set out to help elect the more sensible of the two candidates who had defeated him. The anti-Semitic candidate was later defeated in the general election. On the contrary, Levine remained a respected lawyer in the Pine Bluff community until his death in 1964.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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