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: 1959 Recall Election Day

The triumphant trio who were retained by Little Rock voters.

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.

Little Rock Look Back: End near for 1959 School Board Recall Election

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: STOP announced to end Teacher Purge

Following the success of meetings at Forest Park Elementary and the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, as well as other school, PTA, and civic meetings, the effort was underway to recall the three segregationist members of the Little Rock School Board.

On May 7, 1959, at Brier’s Restaurant, a group of young civic leaders gathered as they often did. This time, their conversation focused on how to capitalize on the momentum mounting in the desire to recall the three segregationist School Board members.  Attorneys Edward Lester, Robert Shults, and Maurice Mitchell were present as well as Gene Fretz, a Gazette editor.  It was he who came up with the acronym STOP – Stop This Outrageous Purge.

That afternoon, the group reconvened at the Grady Manning Hotel.  This time joined by esteemed attorney Will Mitchell.  Among the other men who were instrumental in getting STOP started were attorney Henry Woods, attorney W. P. Hamilton Jr., and banker B. Finley Vinson.  As chair of the Chamber of Commerce, Grainger Williams had been a vocal supporter of the efforts to reopen the school.  His leadership was, no doubt, instrumental in the Chamber’s quick and vocal support for the fired LRSD personnel.

Dr. Drew Agar was chosen to be the chair of STOP.  The father of three children at Forest Park Elementary School, he was vice president of the Forest Park PTA.  It was he who had presided over the successful Forest Park PTA meeting which saw several hundred parents oppose the firing and endorse the recall of the three segregationist members. (Dr. Agar had to use some fancy footing to get the items added to the agenda at the last minute, but with creative parliamentary maneuvering, he succeeded.)

On May 8, 1959, STOP was publicly announced.  The event took place at Union National Bank.  Approximately 179 men were in attendance.  Those present were asked to contribute or solicit $100.  (In time, approximately $36,000 would be raised.)

In addition to Dr. Agar serving as chair, Maurice Mitchell served as finance chair, Will Mitchell and Henry Woods were political strategists behind the campaign.  Many other men stepped up.  Dr. Agar announced at the May 8 meeting that a STOP office would open in room 1010 of the Pyramid Life building on May 9.  It was to be open between 9am and 5pm to accept donations and to to collect recall petitions.

At the meeting standing ovations were given to R. A. Lile, a former member of the Little Rock School Board, and Everett Tucker, Ted Lamb and Russell Matson, current members.  (Remember, this was back in the day when standing ovations were few and far between.)

Because most of the STOP members were younger, and second-tier business executives, the leadership of Will Mitchell and the chamber’s leadership by Grainger Williams was crucial in giving not only sage advice, but adding gravitas.

In the coming weeks, STOP would work closely with the Women’s Emergency Committee. The WEC had studied voter registration lists. They would put this skill to use as potential voters were identified as “Saints,” “Sinners,” or “Savables.”  The two groups, working hand in hand behind the scenes, had their work cut out for them.

When the issue about reopening the schools had been put to the voters the previous autumn, Little Rock voters had overwhelmingly approved keeping the schools closed.  There were many factors which had led to it – confusing ballot title, short campaign time, belief that the schools would reopen soon, etc.  But even though there were some key factors in favor of STOP and the WEC this time, nothing could be taken for granted.