By late 1958, it had been about a year since white mobs in Little Rock, encouraged by Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, had begun resorting to threats, violence, and arson to resist desegregation of the city’s schools. Pursuant to the Supreme Court’s watershed 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which had declared state-mandated racial segregation unconstitutional, the school board had announced that it would begin desegregation at Central High School.

Local resistance became so intense, however, that President Dwight Eisenhower dispatched army units to uphold the orders of the federal courts. At the end of the academic year, the school board sought and received permission from a federal judge to postpone the continuation of the desegregation plan on the grounds that the disruptions sparked by opponents were ruining education for all of the children at Central High. A federal court of appeals reversed, ruling that threats of violence could not properly become the predicate for postponing enforcement of a court order.