In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional. However, the Court did not specify how the ruling would be implemented. This was the first time the federal government had intervened in public schools, an area traditionally overseen by state governments. While the Supreme Court had the power to interpret the law and declare segregation unconstitutional, the power to enforce the decision fell to state and local authorities.
In 1955, in what became known as Brown II, the Supreme Court ruled that schools must act "with all deliberate speed." However, the ruling did not specify a timeframe. NAACP attorneys Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall saw the Court's ruling as ambiguous, and a setback. Many southern states refused to comply with the Brown ruling, sparking tension between federal and state governments and creating an impasse for school desegregation.
Civil rights advocates wanted immediate integration, but segregationists were determined to prevent it. In 1956, 100 southern congressmen signed the Southern Manifesto, accusing the federal government of abusing judicial power and infringing on states' rights; they pledged not only to resist the ruling, but to reverse it.
Perceived as a hero during his first term for his decisive action in World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would suffer criticism in his second term for his reluctance to enforce the Brown ruling.
Eisenhower was considered a "gradualist" -- he respected the Court's authority, but believed the South needed time to get used to the idea of integrated schools. Eisenhower was reluctant to get involved, but the Supreme Court's ruling sparked tremendous controversy and violence, and people on both sides of the issue looked to the president for leadership.
In 1957, two years after Brown II, an attempt to integrate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, turned volatile. The president was forced to get involved. When Arkansas governor Orval Faubus wouldn't guarantee the safety of nine black students, President Eisenhower enforced Brown by sending 350 federal troops to maintain order in Little Rock and escort the students into school. The troops stayed until the end of the school year.
The following year, rather than comply with the Court's ruling, Faubus and the Little Rock school board closed the schools.