Little Rock Look Back: Final Saturday in May 1959 Recall Election Campaign

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.

Little Rock Look Back: School Board Election of 1958

The regularly scheduled Little Rock School Board election of 1958 took place on Saturday, December 6 of that year.  While other school boards throughout the state generally had just their regular two positions on the ballot that day, Little Rock had a unique situation with all six seats being open.

In November, five of the members of the school board resigned out of frustration. They were caught between federal court orders compelling integration at the high school level and state laws which openly forbade it (and allowed for the closing of the high schools to keep them segregated).

The one remaining member was leaving office in December because he was about to take a seat in Congress.  Dr. Dale Alford had unseated incumbent Brooks Hays by running as a write in candidate in the general election.

Grainger Williams of the Chamber of Commerce worked with Adolphine Fletcher Terry and the Women’s Emergency Committee to recruit candidates to run for the six seats. They sought people who would work to reopen the schools.  The five who resigned had done so a mere two days prior to the filing deadline.  The “business-civic” slate which filed for the six seats were Ted Lamb, Billy Rector, Everett Tucker, Russell Matson, Margaret Stephens and Ed McKinley.  The latter was seeking Alford’s seat and was the only one unopposed.

There were a total of thirteen candidates who filed for the six seats.  On November 30, the pro-segregationist Capital Citizens’ Council endorsed Ed McKinley, Pauline Woodson, Ben D. Rowland Sr., Margaret Morrison, C. C. Railey, and R. W. Laster.  An offshoot of the CCC, the State’s Rights Council offered its own endorsements including George P. Branscum, who had once been a CCC officer.

In what the GAZETTE called “Little Rock’s Strangest School Board Election,” voters chose Laster, McKinley, and Rowland from the CCC-backed list and Lamb, Tucker, and Matson.  The latter three had been labeled by Gov. Faubus as “integrationists.”

Many of the races were close.  Laster won when the results from the final precinct were counted.  Losing candidates on both sides of the issue challenged the results.  Mrs. Stephens had lost to Laster by 81 one votes.  Rector paid for her race and his to be recounted.  The recount took two days with seven 4-man teams doing the work by hand.  But the results stood.

There were approximately 42,500 voters in the district.  The election drew 14,300 voters. That was double the usual 7,000 voters who participated in school board elections.

Though disappointed that only three of their candidates had won, members of the WEC and their allies took comfort in the fact they had elected three moderates to the School Board less than three months after the group was founded.

An evenly divided School Board was set to take office later in the month.  But the odd elections during the 1958-59 school year involving the Little Rock School District were far from over.

 

Little Rock Look Back: The Aftermath of the Recall

The day after the recall election, there was still uncertainty.  The results were not uncertain – even the two boxes from Woodruff Elementary which were not counted until the the day after did not change the outcome.

The uncertainty stemmed from the process.  The School Board recall law which had been hastily passed by the Arkansas General Assembly (to be used as a tool against integration), had many glaring omissions. Written by Attorney General (and avowed segregationist) Bruce Bennett, it did not indicate when recalled members lost their seats – was it after election results were announced? After they were certified? Or after the new members were appointed?

In addition, the Election Commission was prepared to certify the results, but did not know to whom they were issuing the certification.  Because it was a citizen-initiated recall for a school district race, none of the pre-existing rules applied.  And again, the Bennett bill did not spell it out.

The Pulaski County Board of Education had to wait for the results to be certified before they could appoint the three new members.  Each of these new members would stand for re-election in December at the next School Board election.

In the interim, the School Board had a scheduled meeting set for two days after the election.  But with its membership uncertain and no pressing matters, the three retained members (Everett Tucker, Russell Matson and Ted Lamb) were considering postponing the meeting.

In the coming days, the Election Commission would meet and certify the results.  They ended up sending them to the County Judge.  One of the three members appointed to fill the vacancies was ineligible (he did not live in the district).  But by the end of June, the Little Rock School Board was back to six members.

A court ruling over the summer which struck down the law allowing the closure of schools, cleared the way for Little Rock high schools to reopen as integrated in the fall.  There would be much more legal wrangling in the weeks, months and years to come.  The rate at which the Little Rock public schools were integrated was much more focused on the word “deliberate” than on “speed.”

But on May 26, 1958, those matters were for another day.  The supporters of the fired 44 teachers and the three school board members who defended them were left to savor their victory.

A look at the voting by the City’s five wards shows that while individual precinct totals varied, Messrs. Lamb, Matson and Tucker all fared well in Wards 1 and 5 as well as in Cammack Village and Absentee voting.  Ben Rowland and Bob Laster fared well in Wards 2, 3, and 4 as well as the unincorporated area around Wilson Elementary.  Ed McKinley was supported in Wards 3 & 4 as well as the Wilson Elementary environs.

Here is a breakdown of the voting locations in each Ward to give a sense of the geographic location:

Ward 1 – 16th & Park, 14th & Pulaski, 15th & State, 28th & Wolfe, 23rd & Arch

Ward 2 – 316 E. 8th, 12th & Commerce, 424 E. 21st, 1101 E Roosevelt, 6th & Fletcher

Ward 3 – County Courthouse, 1116 W Markham, 11th & Ringo, 9th & Battery, Deaf School, 7th & Johnson, Cantrell Rd in Riverdale

Ward 4 – 4710 W 12th, 3515 W 12th, 24th & Garland, 22nd & Peyton, Broadmoor Methodist

Ward 5 – Markham & Elm, Kavanaugh & Beech, Cantrell & Pierce, Kavanaugh & Harrison, Kavanaugh & McKinley, 7524 Cantrell, H & Hayes