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.