Not all events in Little Rock on May 25, 1959, were school-related.
On that day, Harry W. Parkin, a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission was joined by Little Rock Mayor Werner Knoop and Pratt Remmel, a former mayor of the city, in a brief ceremony.
With Mayors Knoop and Remmel standing by, Mr. Parkin snipped the ribbon to officially mark the opening of LaHarpe Boulevard in Little Rock. Owner of Parkin Printing Company in LR, he had been appointed to the Highway Commission in 1957.
Mr. Knoop was the current mayor of the City, having been chosen by his colleagues on the initial City Board in November 1957. He was re-selected in January 1959 to a second stint as mayor. Mr. Remmel had been mayor in 1952 when Little Rock voters approved bonds to pay for their portion of the $3million project.
In February 1957, the street was named in honor of the explorer Jean-Baptiste Benard de La Harpe, who had first claimed the area for the French.
May 25, 1959, was not only the Recall Election Day, it was the last day of school for the Little Rock School District’s elementary and junior high students. The results of that day’s vote would determine whether the ninth grade students would be in class come fall, or joining their older friends and neighbors in sitting out a school year.
While expectations that a new record of turnout would be set were off, over 25,000 of the 42,000 registered voters DID cast ballots in the May 25, 1959, Recall Election.
As the precinct results started coming in, some unexpected trends developed. Some of the boxes in the more affluent, western neighborhoods which had been expected to be strongly in favor of keeping Everett Tucker, Russell Matson and Ted Lamb were not providing the anticipated overwhelming numbers. Likewise, some of the more working class neighborhoods which had been projected to be strongly in favor of keeping Ed McKinley, Ben Rowland and Bob Laster were more receptive to keeping Tucker, Matson and Lamb.
As the night rolled onward, only Everett Tucker looked like a sure thing to be retained on the School Board. At one point in the evening it appeared that the other five members would be recalled. By the time they were down to four boxes still uncounted, the three CROSS-backed candidates were guaranteed to be recalled, but the status of Lamb and Matson was still undetermined. Finally, with only two boxes remaining, there was a sufficient cushion to guarantee Matson and Lamb would continue as board members.
Two boxes from the Woodruff school were uncounted at the end of Monday. They had 611 votes between the two of them, which was not enough to change any outcomes. They were being kept under lock and key to ensure there was no tampering with them.
Once it became apparent that Tucker, Lamb and Matson were retained, the STOP watch party erupted. Six young men hoisted the triumphant three on their shoulders and paraded them through the crowd. Dr. Drew Agar enthusiastically announced to the crowd, “Mission completely accomplished.”
At around 11:00 p.m. William S. Mitchell addressed the crowd. “This is a great awakening of our home town…I have never seen such a wonderful demonstration of community spirit.” He later went on to thank the thousands of people who volunteered in the effort.
At the CROSS headquarters, Ed McKinley and Rev. M. L. Moser were sequestered in a room poring over results. When it appeared that 5 of the 6 might be recalled, McKinley issued what turned out to be a premature statement.
Back at the STOP party, the celebration continued. While people knew that much work was still ahead, the men and women in attendance were enjoying a rare moment of joy after nearly two years of strife.
Sunday, May 24, 1959, was election eve for the Recall Campaign. As such, the election figured into some Sunday morning sermons. Reverend M. L. Moser Jr. spoke from the pulpit of his church and described the issue of segregation as Biblical. As many had before him, and would after him, he used the story of Noah’s three sons as a way to justify segregation of the races.
(Supposedly one of the sons was the father of the white race, one the father of the African American race, and one the father of the Asian race. In this narrative, no explanation is given for other variations such as Native Americans and other indigenous people or persons from the sub-continent of India. Also excluded is the likely race of everyone in the story – those who live in the Middle East.)
At Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Dean Charles A. Higgins prayed for the schools but did not tell his parishioners how to vote. Rev. Aubrey G. Walton at First Methodist Church spoke about the schools needing to be free from politics and pressure groups. (Though Rev. Walton did later appear that evening on a STOP sponsored TV show.)
Embattled School Board president Ed McKinley refused requests from the media and others to divulge his plans for the future of the Little Rock School District. Earlier he had stated he had an idea on how the schools could be reopened and segregated, but still remain in compliance with the courts. Across the river, segregationists were planning a rally in North Little Rock to head off any plans for future integration on the north side. Congressman Alford had already agreed to speak at this rally.
In paid time on TV, Governor Faubus spoke at length in a criticism of the Arkansas Gazette. He called the fired teachers pawns in a larger game. He noted in his remarks that he did not expect to sway any votes by this point.
Not to be outdone, STOP was on all three TV stations. Sometimes the program was aired on more than one station simultaneously. In an appearance sponsored by STOP, William S. Mitchell noted that May 24 was coincidentally Children’s Day. He noted that never before in Little Rock history had so many people volunteered for a cause as those who had worked on STOP and with STOP. The Women’s Emergency Committee, PTA Council, labor unions, and numerous other organizations had come together to raise money, knock on doors, and otherwise get the word out.
Finally, it was all over but the voting. Nineteen days of outrage, exasperation, and hyperbole was coming to an end. When dawn broke, it would be election day.
While later known more as a punchline due to personal fallibilities, for decades Wilbur D. Mills was one of the most powerful men in the world. As the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1958 to 1975, he was the architect not only of an overhaul of the tax code, but also determined ways to finance Medicare, Medicaid, and many other federal programs of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford years.
Wilbur Daigh Mills was born in Kensett on May 24, 1909. When Mills went to Congress at the age of 29, he was the youngest man elected to that time. A scant four years later he joined the Ways and Means Committee.
Because Mills rarely had an opponent (only 1942, 1966, and 1974), he was able to focus on learning the ins and outs of the tax code. As long as he delivered some federal dollars to his largely rural district every so often, he did not have to preoccupy himself with the daily issues many in Congress face. It was not until 1963, when Arkansas lost two of its six congressional seats, that Mills had Little Rock in his district. Prior to that, Searcy had been the largest city he represented. (There had been concern that Rep. Dale Alford, who had upset incumbent Brooks Hays in 1958 before losing his seat due to reapportionment four years later might challenge Mills. But Alford opted to retire instead of taking on the powerful Mills.)
President Kennedy’s visit to Little Rock and Greers Ferry in October 1963 was the result of bargaining with Congressman Mills over some tax policy. Mills gave in to JFK a bit, and JFK agreed to come to Arkansas to speak in Little Rock and at the dedication of two dams. In recognition of his national clout, Mills was briefly considered a contender for the 1972 Democratic nomination for President.
Though he probably struggled with alcoholism for years, he had been able to keep his behavior in check until 1974 when his car was stopped in Washington DC for not having its headlights on. Though Mills was not driving, he was inebriated. Another occupant of the car, a stripper with the stage name Fanne Fox ran from the car and frolicked in the Tidal Basin. It became fodder for worldwide headlines.
The incident happened about a month before Election Day, when Mills was facing Republican Judy Petty. A contrite Mills spent the remaining days in the campaign in Arkansas and won re-election by 59% of the vote. (Though later in November, he again was in the headlines when Fox pulled him on stage with her at a club in Boston.) In January 1975, he stepped down as Ways and Means Chair.
In 1976, he opted to retire from Congress and did not seek another term. In retirement, he practiced law in Washington DC before eventually moving back to Kensett full-time. He died in 1992.
May 23, 1959, was a Saturday. It was also two days before the School Board recall election. With it being a Saturday, it was the last full day for door knocking as supporters for all sides were busy trying to get out the vote.
Both sides were confident of victory. Before a crowd of 1,000 in MacArthur Park, segregationists Rep. Dale Alford and Mississippi congressman John Bell Williams berated Harry Ashmore and the Arkansas Gazette.
STOP chair Dr. Drew Agar and campaign chair William Mitchell predicted it would be the largest turnout in Little Rock school election history. They also stated that Gov. Faubus’ TV appearance criticizing STOP had actually pushed people over to their side.
Echoing Agar and Mitchell, the Pulaski County Election Commission predicted 30,000 of the district’s 42,000 registered voters would cast ballots. The previous record of 27,000 had been cast in September 1958 when voters decided to keep the high schools closed. By contrast, 14,300 voted in the December 1958 election which had selected the six school board members now on the ballot for recall. On May 22, the final day of absentee ballot voting, 205 absentee votes had been cast bringing it to a total of 455 absentee ballots.
William S. Mitchell, who in addition to being a renowned attorney, apparently had a wicked sense of humor. He used CROSS’s name against them in ads (placed throughout the newspaper) which urged voters to “Cross” out the names of the three candidates being backed by CROSS.
Thomas D. Merrick was born on 23 May, 1814, in Hampden County, Massachusetts. He later moved to Indianapolis IN and Louisville KY before ending up in Little Rock.
On January 17, 1841, he married Anna M. Adams of Kentucky at Christ Episcopal Church in Little Rock. They had seven children: George, Annie, Ellie, Mollie, Lillian, Dwight, and Thomas. Thomas died at age ten.
Merrick became a prominent member of the Little Rock business community, as a merchant and cotton broker. He was involved in Freemasonry, holding the position of Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas in 1845.
In 1855 Merrick entered into a business partnership with future LR Mayor John Wassell. Merrick was also involved in city politics, serving on the city council and also as mayor from January 1854 to January 1855.
He saw active service during the Civil War. On February 6, 1861, Merrick delivered an ultimatum to Captain James Totten of the United States Arsenal at Little Rock, demanding the surrender of the federal troops. This was more than two months before Fort Sumter was attached,.
Merrick also raised a regiment of Confederate Arkansas Militia, holding the rank of Colonel of Infantry at Camp Conway, near Springfield, Arkansas. Following the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), Merrick resigned his commission and returned to Little Rock.
Merrick died in his home in Little Rock on March 18, 1866. He is buried in Mount Holly Cemetery.
Today is primary day in Arkansas. Though City of Little Rock municipal races are non-partisan and won’t be on the ballot until November, that has not always been the case.
Between 1874 and 1957, usually winning the Democratic Primary was tantamount to election. So the municipal general elections were usually boring. (The only exception would be the three elections in which Pratt Remmel was the GOP nominee for mayor facing off against the Democratic nominee.)
The real drama was in the primary races.
The 1911 primary pitted crusading businessman Charles Taylor against a firebrand attorney and Alderman John Tuohey, a grocer. Each of the three tried to position himself as an outsider, though Tuohey was least successful in accomplishing this considering he was an alderman and the candidate of choice of the retiring mayor.
Riffle logged insults at both Taylor and Tuohey. Taylor sought to position himself as not just the candidate of the businessmen. As a progressive, he borrowed Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal motto and offered “A Square Deal for Everyone.” A Baptist Sunday School superintendent, he also campaigned against vice. Tuohey offered his own solutions to city issues but was hampered in the campaign by illness.
After the January 12, 1911, primary election day, Tuohey had 1530 votes, Taylor had 1493 and Riffle had 506. Taylor alleged 323 illegal votes were cast and sought the poll tax records to try to prove it. After he saw the poll tax lists, he reduced his charges to 250 illegal votes.
On January 26, Tuohey and Taylor agreed to a new, two-man primary (essentially a run-off) in an attempt to resolve the matter. After that race, Taylor had 1874 votes and Tuohey had 1645. Taylor went on to be elected mayor in April 1911 and would subsequently serve four two-year terms.
When he took office in April 1929 having just turned 29 a few weeks earlier, Mayor Pat L. Robinson seemed to be a rising star in the Democratic Party. Within a few months, however, he found himself at odds with the Little Rock City Council on a variety of issues.
Some of these appear to have been of his own doing, partially due to youthful arrogance, and part of these were probably rooted in entrenched resistance to change. With the onset of the Great Depression six months into his term, the City’s already tight financial shape became even tighter. The aldermen and city clerk gave him no quarter (though some may have wanted to draw and quarter him).
In November 1930, City Clerk Horace Knowlton squared off against Mayor Robinson (no relation to Joe T.) in the Democratic primary. It was a particularly raucous primary with charges and counter-charges of corruption, malfeasance and misfeasance. In describing Mayor Robinson’s handling of the City finances, Mr. Knowlton declared the mayor had undertaken an “orgy of spending.”
The results after the election were Knowlton, 4,537; Robinson, 4,554; and 61 votes for a third candidate. Robinson was declared the nominee. But Knowlton protested and filed suit. There charges of illegal voting and persons whose ballots were not counted. After an exhaustive investigation (over 1,800 pages of testimony were taken), the court found that neither side had willingly engaged in voter fraud or vote tampering. The painstaking analysis further found that Knowlton had received ten more votes than Robinson.
In April 1931, Knowlton won the general election and was sworn in as Little Rock mayor. Robinson continued to pursue the case and appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In June 1931 (in the third month of Knowlton’s mayoral term), the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the circuit court ruling that Knowlton had indeed won the primary.
A little more than a decade later, the state’s high court would again be called on to weigh in on Little Rock’s Democratic primary for mayor. In December 1944, Alderman Sam Wassell and former Alderman Dan Sprick faced off in a particularly nasty race. As World War II was drawing to a close, there were charges leveled which questioned patriotism. With both men having service on the Little Rock City Council, there were also plenty of past votes on both sides which could become fodder for campaigns.
The election was on December 5, 1944. Sprick received 3,923 votes and Wassell 3,805. A few days later, Wassell filed suit claiming that there were people who voted who were not on the poll tax rolls and another group of voters who did not live in the ward in which they voted. Sprick countersued making the same charges against Wassell.
The case eventually ended up at the Arkansas Supreme Court, which remanded it back to the lower court. On March 26, 1945, Wassell dropped his case. This was only eight (8) days before the municipal general election.
Two years later, Wassell would challenge Sprick in the primary and be triumphant. Wassell would serve from 1947 until 1951. Sprick would later return to politics and serve a decade in the Arkansas State Senate.
There are many more interesting primary and election stories to tell. Stay tuned…