Woodrow Wilson Mann Sr., who as mayor of Little Rock, Ark., urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send federal troops to protect black students during the desegregation crisis at Central High School in 1957, has died. He was 85.
Mann died Tuesday in Houston of complications from a stroke he suffered a few years ago.
In what has been called the most volatile state-federal conflict since the Civil War, Little Rock became a battleground for the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
“If this be the law,” Gov. Orval E. Faubus said after Arkansas’ schools were ordered desegregated, “then every state in this Union is nothing more than a vassal state to the central government.”
In a fairly transparent effort to stop the desegregation efforts, Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard in early September, claiming that “caravans” of segregationists were planning to disrupt the entrance of the first black students at Central High School. But Mann said that local police could have handled any unrest. If trouble erupts, Mann said, “the blame rests squarely at the doorstep of the governor’s mansion.”
On Sept. 4, the day integration was to begin at the 1,900-student campus, the guardsmen prevented the black students from entering Central High.
Although Mann never supported classroom integration, he later wrote that he was bound to uphold the law. He urged Faubus to withdraw the guardsmen.
“Place the people of Arkansas once again on the path of compliance with law and order,” Mann urged Faubus in a formal message Sept. 17, as national guardsmen continued to keep the black students out of Central High.
Three days later, a judge granted NAACP lawyers an injunction that prevented Faubus from using the National Guard to prevent the black students from entering the high school. The governor removed the guardsmen. At Mann’s request, 50 state policemen were mobilized for duty around Central High School and barricades were installed at both ends of the street in front of the school.
On Sept. 23, with state and local police standing guard, the black students walked up the steps and into the building as a jeering crowd of several hundred whites, some throwing rocks, threatened to rush the school.
A few hours later, with police unsure they could control the mob outside the school, the black students were led out a back entrance.
The next day, Mann sent Eisenhower a telegram asking for federal troops to maintain order at the high school:
“The immediate need for federal troops is urgent.... I am pleading to you as President of the United States in the interest of humanity, law and order, and the cause of democracy worldwide to provide the necessary federal troops within several hours.”
Eisenhower deployed 1,100 members of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock.
On Sept. 25, with Army troops escorting them, the nine black students again entered Central High School.
Mann paid a heavy price for his stand, as did his family.
He told reporters during the crisis that he had received threats on his life because of his criticism of Faubus’ action.
Mann’s son Woodrow Mann Jr., who was in his senior year at the school, recalled the hate mail and the burned crosses.
“He believed that regardless of his personal viewpoint on the issue, as mayor, he had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” Woodrow Mann Jr. told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this week.
“It was,” he added, “a stand that was extremely unpopular with the majority of Arkansas segregationists.”
Born Nov. 13, 1916 in Little Rock, the senior Mann attended the University of Illinois on a music scholarship. After graduating, he worked for a time at an insurance company in Chicago. During World War II, he served on the staff of Adm. Chester Nimitz in the Pacific.
He returned to Arkansas after the war and worked in the insurance business, which he continued to do after being elected mayor in 1956. But his stand on Faubus’ tactics and the city’s decision to switch from a mayor-council system to a manager-council form of city government cost him his job in 1958.
His stand also ruined his insurance business, his son told The Times on Friday.
“When he was elected mayor he had the largest independent insurance agency in the state,” he said. “When his term was over he was basically out of business because he had lost [most of] his clientele.”
Mann left Little Rock in 1959 and moved first to Dallas and then to Houston, where he continued his insurance and mortgage banking business until retiring in the early 1990s.
His son said his father rarely discussed the Central High crisis.
“It was very tough for him to recall,” he said. “He was a native Arkansan who loved the state of Arkansas. He felt he did what he was required to do. Basically, he was vilified by the people in his home state as a result of his stand.
“It changed his entire life and he was very bitter about it until the end of his life.”
In addition to his son, Mann is survived by a brother, Harold, of Knoxville, Tenn.; two sisters, Freddie Schroeder of Houston and Catherine Boyd of Little Rock; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.