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.

Remember the Recall – a look at 1959 LR Schools Election at Old State House Museum today

Courtesy of UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture

After eight months of closed high schools in Little Rock, the firing of 44 well-respected Little Rock School District employees set off a firestorm which would culminate in a recall election.

Supporters of following federal law were pitted against ardent segregationists as all six members of the School Board (who had been elected only five months earlier) were subject to the state’s first ever recall election for school board members.

Today (May 9) at the Old State House Museum, the Brown Bag lecture series will focus on the Recall election and the events that led up to it.  The program starts at 12 noon.

In a program entitled, “Remember the Recall” the events of May 1959 will be discussed. The campaigns for and against these school board members exposed new generations of Little Rock residents to civic engagement. Some of Little Rock’s civic leaders today cite that time as a political awakening.

 

And the Pulitzer goes to SOUTH PACIFIC

On May 5, 1950, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific captured the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. This would receive special attention in the Arkansas Gazette. The reason this carried such weight in Arkansas was that the musical had a connection to Little Rock.

The 1950 Pulitzer for Drama went to a musical for only the second time in the history of the awards. The recipient was South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. The character was the leading lady of Nellie Forbush. She was an Navy ensign and a nurse stationed on an exotic island during World War II. The musical was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

In the Michener novel, Miss Forbush is not from Little Rock. She is actually from a small town in Alabama. But the book does mention Nellie and her mother visiting Little Rock.  The part was written for Mary Martin from Weatherford, Texas. Rodgers, Hammerstein & Logan did not discuss why they relocated Nellie’s birthplace.

Originally the musical contained a song entitled “My Girl Back Home” in which Nellie sang of being from “Little Rock, A-R-K” while another character sang of being from “Philadelphia, P-A” and “Princeton, N-J.” It is possible the change to Little Rock was made because it offered more lyrical possibilities, but that is only a supposition on the part of the Culture Vulture. That song did appear in the movie version in which Mitzi Gaynor played Nellie Forbush. It was also featured in the 2008 Broadway revival, this time with Kelli O’Hara playing Nellie.

In the musical, Nellie struggles with her own prejudices. This issue of prejudice became an instance of fact meeting fiction. In 1957, a few weeks after Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock to ensure that Central High would be desegregated, a production of South Pacific on Long Island was temporarily halted when the audience booed and yelled after Nellie mentioned she was from Little Rock. Interestingly, the movie was released in 1958, but retained references to Little Rock. That was either a testament to the expense of re-editing it, or the fact that audience reaction had lessened.