In the Brown decision, the Supreme Court did no more than announce that segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Recognizing that implementing this decree would be difficult, the Court invited the southern states and the federal government to suggest what course should be followed. In what is known as Brown II, the Court called upon the southern states to desegregate its schools with "all deliberate speed."
The Supreme Court has the power neither of the sword nor the purse, and so it relies upon its moral authority for enforcement of its decrees, or on the aid of the president and Congress. In the years following the two Brown decisions, however, neither the executive nor the legislative branches moved to assist the Court; President Dwight Eisenhower believed that the federal government should not interfere in state matters, while southerners in Congress prevented any action by that body. The southern states adopted a variety of measures to delay desegregation or to evade the decree altogether.
But finally President Eisenhower was forced to act. In the fall of 1957, the school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, agreed to a court order to admit black students to Central High School. The governor of the state, Orville Faubus, called out the National Guard to prevent the students from entering, and when the court again ordered the students admitted, Faubus withdrew the troops. But when the students tried to enroll, a mob attacked the school and drove them off. Eisenhower could no longer sit by passively and watch federal authority flouted. He ordered a thousand paratroopers into Little Rock, put ten thousand Arkansas national guardsmen under federal control and used the troops to protect the black students and to maintain order in the school.
Eisenhower withdrew the troops at the end of the school year, and then the Supreme Court, for the first time since Brown II, spoke out on desegregation in Cooper v. Aaron, a case arising out of the Arkansas turmoil. The state had argued that it was not bound by the Court's decision, since it had not been a party to the original suit; beyond that, Arkansas claimed that a governor of a state had the same power to interpret the Constitution as did the Supreme Court.
The Court not only reaffirmed the ruling in Brown that segregation was unconstitutional, but in an unusual step issued an opinion signed by all nine justices. In the decision, the Court reasserted its authority as the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution, and it reminded Arkansas and the nation that ever since 1803 it had been, in Chief Justice John Marshall's phrase, "the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."
The case marked the end of the waiting period, during which time the Court had given southern states time to accept Brown and start desegregating schools; now the Court indicated its impatience with delay. The law required that segregation end, and in a series of cases following Cooper, the justices handed down one decision after another ordering schools to begin implementing desegregation.