Woodrow Wilson Mann

Portrait of Woodrow Wilson Mann, the Mayor of Little Rock during the Central High crisis.
Woodrow Wilson Mann served as the mayor of Little Rock during the crisis at Central High School.

Quick Facts

Woodrow Wilson Mann served as the mayor of Little Rock (January 1956 to November 5, 1957) during the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School. A 1934 graduate of Little Rock Senior High School and the University of Illinois, Mann was a naval officer under Admiral Chester W. Nimitz during World War II. After starting an insurance business in Little Rock, he successfully ran for mayor as a Democrat in 1955.

Elected to office with the help of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, Mann implemented a new busing system in Little Rock during his first year in office. Mann also changed a policy at Little Rock City Hall requiring African Americans to drink out of cups at the drinking fountain by removing the signage giving these instructions and providing cups for all users. In November 1956, Little Rock voters approved a measure to change the city’s governing structure from a mayor to a city manager. Mann, a “caretaker” and a lame duck, opposed the option and had to be compelled by the Arkansas Supreme Court to set an election for the new leaders.

When the desegregation at Little Rock Central High School was imminent, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus decided to bring out the Arkansas National Guard (ANG) to “preserve the peace” and maintain order without conferring with Mann. While Faubus referred to “caravans” of armed men coming to Little Rock to incite violence, Mann did not expect significant issues. He and Little Rock Police Chief Marvin Potts had instead prepared to deal with the “cranks” who might cause trouble.

Mayor Mann felt that Governor Faubus had become a political pawn and was trying to find favor with Senators Richard Russell (GA) and Storm Thurmond (SC); Thurmond had been the chief architect of the Southern Manifesto, a 1956 document in favor of “massive resistance” to integration following Brown v. Board of Education two years earlier.

After the students were denied entry into Central High School on September 4, 1957, Mann attacked Faubus’ decision to use the Arkansas National Guard, saying there had not been a “shred of evidence” to justify their presence at Central High and that "planned, manufactured racial incidents" were being schemed by "rabble-rousers, who will try to give credence to Governor Faubus' stand." A cross was burned on the Mayor’s lawn soon after his statements

Mann acted after the Governor removed the ANG on September 20. A second attempt to integrate Central High School on September 23 carried the Little Rock Nine into the building under police escort. Trouble inside Central High began quickly; Mann’s son, Woody, tried to reach his father mid-morning from a phone inside Central High. Woody, a student at Central High, was escorted from the high school and delivered by police upon the Mayor’s request to City Hall. Woody told his father that chatter swirling throughout Central said that the Little Rock Nine “will be taken care of” at noon.

At 12:07 p.m., police secretly escorted the Little Rock Nine from Central High after only three class periods had been completed. The angry mob which had slowly gathered outside Central high all morning reached an angered crescendo and had attacked several African American journalists as well as attempting to rush through police lines.

The violence outside the school led Mann to telegraph President Eisenhower and offer the support of the Little Rock Police Department “if the Justice Department desires to enforce the orders of the federal court in regard to integration.” The next day, the tenor and tone of Mann’s words to Eisenhower reached a fever pitch: “''I am pleading to you as President of the United States in the interest of humanity, law and order and because of democracy worldwide to provide the necessary federal troops within several hours.”

After leaving office in November 1957, Mann wrote a series of articles entitled “The Truth about Little Rock” in the New York Herald Tribune in January 1958. He stated that while he never supported classroom integration, he felt obligated to honor the language of Brown v. Board of Education. With his political and business prospects ruined in Little Rock, Mann moved to Houston in 1960.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Last updated: April 15, 2021