60 Years since the Labor Day bombings of 1959

ARKANSAS GAZETTE photos showing the exterior and interior of the LRSD building after the bomb blast.

On September 7, 1959, a peaceful Labor Day in Little Rock was shattered by the explosions of three dynamite bombs.

The locations were Fire Chief Gene Nalley’s driveway on Baseline Road at 10:20pm, Baldwin Company offices at Fourth and Gaines at 10:53pm (where Little Rock Mayor Werner Knoop was a partner–the company is now known as Baldwin Shell), and the School District offices at 10:58pm (then located at Eighth and Louisiana streets).

Given the three targets, it was fairly quickly assumed that there was a connection between the bombings and the lingering effects of the 1957 integration crisis. In light of that, police officers were stationed at the homes of all Little Rock City Directors and School Board members.

The investigation into the bombings turned up a purported fourth location for a bomb. That was the office of Letcher Langford. (Culture Vulture Editorializing Note:  This could have been a ploy to throw investigators off the scent. Langford was the only City Director who had been backed by segregationist candidates and had been openly hostile to the Women’s Emergency Committee — to the point of threatening them with legal action for not disclosing their membership rolls.)

Investigators determined that the bombing had been planned in late August by members of the Ku Klux Klan.  Five individuals were arrested.  They were J. D. Sims, Jesse Raymond Perry, John Taylor Coggins, Samuel Graydon Beavers, and E. A. Lauderdale.  The latter had twice been an unsuccessful candidate for the City Board of Directors.

Sims pleaded guilty and started serving a prison term later in September 1959.  Perry, Coggins and Beavers all went to trial in October and November.  Each was found guilty. Their terms ranged from three to five years.  Lauderdale was convicted, but appealed his decision. Though the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the verdict against him, he did not start serving his sentence until the court decision in February 1961.

Governor Faubus commuted the sentences of Perry, Coggins and Beavers.  All three served less than six months.  Lauderdale’s sentence was reduced by Faubus so that he, too, was eligible for release after six months.  Sims, who was first to plead, served the longest: nearly two years.

Sadly, this would not be the last bombing in Little Rock tied to 1957. In February 1960, Carlotta Walls’ house was bombed.

Little Rock Look Back: Classes resume in Little Rock high schools

On August 12, 1959, something remarkable and yet unremarkable happened.  Little Rock teenagers started the high school year.

After turmoil and no classes in 1958-1959 (dubbed the Lost Year), the state law allowing for schools to be shut down in order to keep them segregated had been overturned.

The six new school board members (all of whom had started since December 1958) decided to start classes in the middle of August instead of the traditional post-Labor Day start. The original start date of post-Labor Day was changed in an announcement on Monday, August 4.  Among the reasons was to get classes started before Gov. Faubus could convene the Arkansas General Assembly into special session and create more mischief in order to try to keep Little Rock’s high Schools segregated.

While it WAS important to have the schools reopened, the desegregation was minimal.  Originally, only three African Americans were admitted to Central High (Jefferson Thomas, Elizabeth Eckford, and Carlotta Walls, who had all been part of the Little Rock Nine) and only three were admitted to Hall High.  One of the three admitted to Central, Eckford, had enough credits due to correspondence courses, and did not enroll.

On August 12, about 1,000 segregationists attended a rally at the State Capitol hearing from Gov. Faubus and other speakers.  After it was over, about 250 marched or drove toward Central High School.  A block away from the school, they met a phalanx of police officers who turned them away.  When the marchers broke into rioters, the Fire Department turned its hoses on them. The police ended up arresting 24 people.  (This more active response by Police and Fire personnel was a marked difference from two years prior.)

After the school year started, the School Board interviewed over a dozen African American students who wished to transfer from Horace Mann to either Central, Hall, or Technical high schools.  Of these, three would be admitted to Central, including sophomore Sybil L. Jordan (now better known as Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton).