September 13, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 5
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Judge’s family reflects on historic integration rulings

FARGO, N.D. — Judge Ronald Davies never talked much about his court rulings 50 years ago in Arkansas, not even to his own family.

As the city of Little Rock, Ark., prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that historic time, officials there and the family of Davies, who died in 1996, are reflecting on the impact of those decisions.

The Fargo judge boarded a train in late August 1957 to help out the federal court system in Arkansas. Over the next few weeks, he issued a series of rulings that Little Rock schools must allow black students to attend.

The integration of Little Rock’s Central High School was the first test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

Before a desegregation plan could go into effect in Little Rock, then-Gov. Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard.

Details vary about how Davies, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, ended up with the school integration case. It was not uncommon for a federal judge to travel within a circuit to help with a backlog.

“No one in the South wanted to decide the pending integration case,” Davies said in a 1987 interview with The Bismarck Tribune. “Even though it was summer, they all had cold feet.”

On Aug. 25, 1957, Davies left his wife Mildred and his children — Tim, 23, Jody, 21, Tom, 18, Katia, 16, and Jean, 11 — in Fargo, and headed for Arkansas.

Five days later, on Aug. 30, Davies issued his own order against interfering with integration at Central High School.

When none of the nine black students reported for the first day of school, Davies ordered integration to start the next day.

Melba Pattillo, who is now Melba Pattillo Beals, then 15 and one of the Little Rock Nine, arrived for school Sept. 4, and watched as a mob jeered at another black student.

“We then realized we were at great peril as well,” said Pattillo Beals, now 65 and living near San Francisco.

She said she and her mother ran for their lives.
“Your life was in jeopardy. For a 15-year-old, you don’t think about that. You don’t think about the end of your life. On that particular day, I did,” Pattillo Beals told The Forum in a telephone phone interview.

The Little Rock School Board asked Davies to temporarily suspend its integration plan. Davies again ordered integration to proceed.
“I have a constitutional duty and obligation from which I shall not shrink,” he said in the Sept. 7 ruling. “In an organized society, there can be nothing but ultimate confusion and chaos if court decrees are flaunted.”

Faubus insisted he was trying to protect black children and white children and preserve peace.

Hate mail started arriving at the hotel where Davies was staying.

“Runt: Why don’t you go back to No. Dakota,” wrote one person who signed “Arkansan” on the postcard. Another said, “Your spiteful forced integration is flagrant disregard of constitution for states rights.”

Other letters praised him, including one from Paris that said, in part, “I congratulate you on your heroic stand ...”

Davies’ family in Fargo was preparing for daughter Jody’s Sept. 14 wedding.

Jody Davies Eidler, now 71 and living in Wheaton, Ill., said the newspaper reports were frightening, “talking about fixed bayonets around the school.”

“It was a very stressful time for my mom, and she was really fortunate to have the family surrounding her,” she said.

Eidler also wondered whether her father would make it home for her wedding. He promised he’d be there — and he was.

Davies had to return to Little Rock before son Tim’s wedding on Sept. 23. In a telegram, he called it “one of the great disappointments of my life.”

By Sept. 20, the National Guard was still staked out at Central High. The Little Rock Nine had not returned since the disastrous Sept. 4 attempt.

Davies held another court session. The Little Rock Nine attended, as did Faubus’ lawyers.

Pattillo Beals remembers the day.

“I could hear that, no, he wasn’t going to roll over like all the other white people had done for Gov. Faubus,” Pattillo Beals said. “By the end of the trial, he had shown me that not every white person was racist.”

Davies once again ordered integration to start and ruled that Faubus had no authority to use the National Guard to prevent black students from entering the school.

On Sept. 23, the Little Rock Nine again showed up for class. Although they got in, the angry crowd outside led them to leave before the school day ended.

The next day, Eisenhower ordered 101st Airborne Division soldiers to the school. The black students completed their first full day on Sept. 25.

By Oct. 1, Davies was back on a train to Fargo. He never returned to Little Rock.

Daughter Jean Davies Schmith, now 61 and living in Guadalajara, Mexico, said her father lost about 20 pounds and was “much, much grayer.”

“I simply was consistent in my ruling and what I believed to be the law, and the rest was a bunch of hoopla,” she recalled of what he told her.

“He always said, ‘I did not force integration. I simply prevented the obstruction of integration,’” she said.

“I don’t see how anyone else could have done it differently and lived with themselves,” Davies told The Forum in 1982. “I had no other choice.”

In Fargo, Davies served as an active federal judge until 1971, when he took senior status. He turned down requests to write a book or make appearances after his Little Rock work.

Ronald Davies died in 1996, at the age of 91. In 2001, the courthouse in Grand Forks, N.D., where Davies was once a municipal judge, was named the Ronald N. Davies Federal Building and Courthouse.

(Associated Press)

Ronald N. Davies, the federal judge who issued rulings stating that Little Rock, Ark., schools must allow black students to attend, is shown on Sept. 7, 1957. (AP photo)

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