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

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: Sermons, TV Shows Dominate Final Day of 1959 Recall Campaign

A rainy Sunday afternoon did not stop STOP canvassers on May 24, 1959.

Sunday, May 24, 1959, was election eve for the Recall Campaign.  As such, the election figured into some Sunday morning sermons.  Reverend M. L. Moser Jr. spoke from the pulpit of his church and described the issue of segregation as Biblical. As many had before him, and would after him, he used the story of Noah’s three sons as a way to justify segregation of the races.

(Supposedly one of the sons was the father of the white race, one the father of the African American race, and one the father of the Asian race.  In this narrative, no explanation is given for other variations such as Native Americans and other indigenous people or persons from the sub-continent of India.  Also excluded is the likely race of everyone in the story – those who live in the Middle East.)

At Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Dean Charles A. Higgins prayed for the schools but did not tell his parishioners how to vote.  Rev. Aubrey G. Walton at First Methodist Church spoke about the schools needing to be free from politics and pressure groups.  (Though Rev. Walton did later appear that evening on a STOP sponsored TV show.)

Embattled School Board president Ed McKinley refused requests from the media and others to divulge his plans for the future of the Little Rock School District.  Earlier he had stated he had an idea on how the schools could be reopened and segregated, but still remain in compliance with the courts.  Across the river, segregationists were planning a rally in North Little Rock to head off any plans for future integration on the north side.  Congressman Alford had already agreed to speak at this rally.

In paid time on TV, Governor Faubus spoke at length in a criticism of the Arkansas Gazette. He called the fired teachers pawns in a larger game.  He noted in his remarks that he did not expect to sway any votes by this point.

Not to be outdone, STOP was on all three TV stations. Sometimes the program was aired on more than one station simultaneously.  In an appearance sponsored by STOP, William S. Mitchell noted that May 24 was coincidentally Children’s Day.  He noted that never before in Little Rock history had so many people volunteered for a cause as those who had worked on STOP and with STOP.  The Women’s Emergency Committee, PTA Council, labor unions, and numerous other organizations had come together to raise money, knock on doors, and otherwise get the word out.

Finally, it was all over but the voting.  Nineteen days of outrage, exasperation, and hyperbole was coming to an end.  When dawn broke, it would be election day.

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: 1959 School district patrons show support of fired teachers

Arkansas Gazette photo of some of the patrons leaving Bale Elementary dedication

Following the May 5, 1959, firing of 44 administrators, teachers and staff, sections of the Little Rock community continued to coalesce in opposition to the actions taken by three members of the Little Rock School Board.

Later the evening of May 5, at a ceremony to dedicate Williams Elementary, Everett Tucker spoke against the teacher purge. His remarks were greeted enthusiastically by the patrons of the school.

On May 6, 1959, approximately 400 district patrons filled the auditorium at Forest Heights Junior High for a meeting. They expressed their opposition to the firing of the district employees. While the sight of the hands raised in support of the fired employees was an impressive visual, there was more community response to come.

May 7, 1959, had been set as the date for the dedication of the new Hardin Bale Elementary School.  School Board President Ed McKinley, who had been one of the three who fired the 44 employees, was scheduled to give remarks at the ceremony.  As he was starting the remarks, some patrons stood and challenged him.  Then approximately 75 of them got up and walked out.   McKinley then proceeded to use his remarks to defend his actions and to attack opponents.

Both Williams Elementary and Forest Heights Junior High served the more moderate-leaning Pulaski Heights neighborhood. That they would be in support of the fired employees was less of a surprise.  It was a bit more unexpected that Bale Elementary patrons reacted in the way they did.  That neighborhood was more working class and zoned for Central High, two elements that segregationist forces had been counting on for allies.

Mr. McKinley’s remarks were so strident that fellow School Board member Judge Robert Laster called a press conference distancing himself from Mr. McKinley.  He used that opportunity to also criticize Mr. Tucker, Ted Lamb, and Russell Matson for what he termed the politicization of the Williams Elementary event.  After Judge Laster’s comments, the remaining member, Ben Rowland, expressed support for Mr. McKinley. He further stated that he, Mr. McKinley and Judge Laster had previously discussed what Mr. McKinley would mention in his Bale Elementary remarks.

With a school board in turmoil, teachers uncertain as to the legality of their contracts or non-renewal of them, and civic organizations largely calling for the reversal of the firings, the Little Rock education scene was in turmoil.  There was talk swirling through Little Rock about the need to recall school board members.  But who would take the lead on this?

Little Rock Look Back: 44 Teachers fired by divided LRSD School Board in 1959

Arkansas Gazette coverage of the teacher purge

On Tuesday, May 5, 1959, the deeply divided Little Rock School Board met to consider contracts for the coming year.  The topic of contract renewal had been on the April agenda, but with two of the six members out of town, it had been delayed.

The 1958-1959 school year had been anything but routine in Little Rock.  To keep the high schools segregated, the city’s four high schools had been closed – first by action of Governor Orval Faubus and then by Little Rock voters.  Frustrated by actions taken at the State level, the School Board had resigned en masse by November 1958, except for the one member who had won a surprise write-in election to unseat Congressman Brooks Hays.  A new school board was elected in December and was equally divided between segregationists and those who felt the law and federal court rulings should be followed.

The May 5, 1959, School Board meeting began at 9am with a room packed full of spectators and was carried live on the radio.  There had been rumblings that the pro-segregation school board members were going to try to fire any teachers they viewed as in favor of desegregation.  Every vote in the morning session ended with a 3/3 vote as Everett Tucker, Russell Matson and Ted Lamb voted one way and the other three: Ed McKinley, Robert Laster and Ben Rowland, voted the other.

After lunch, Tucker, Matson and Lamb decided to leave the meeting. They saw no way to break the stalemate that was paralyzing the discussions. Upon advice of attorneys, they walked out. With only three members remaining, they three thought it end the meeting for lack of quorum.

School Board President Ed McKinley declared the remaining members a quorum. The trio alternated between open and closed sessions. At the end of the day, they had fired forty-four LRSD employees who they viewed as integrationists.  This included 39 whites and five African Americans.  Twenty-seven worked at Central High, while the other seventeen were scattered across other Little Rock schools.  Seven principals, thirty-four teachers, and three secretaries made up the group.  The meeting had lasted the entire day.  The afternoon Arkansas Democrat (with a mid-day deadline) carried a story pondering whether teachers would be fired.

At the same meeting, Superintendent Terrell Powell was fired.  He had taken the reins of the district in December 1958 after having been Hall High’s first principal.  Mr. Powell was replaced by Tom Alford, a former Jacksonville superintendent who was the father of congressman (and former LRSD school board member) Dale Alford.

During a portion of the school board meeting (which was at the corner of Eighth Street and Louisiana Street), phone calls were being made from the LRSD headquarters to a house a few blocks away.  That house was the home of Adolphine Fletcher Terry.  She was hosting an executive board meeting of the Women’s Emergency Committee that day.

Not ones to shy away on anything, the WEC executive board voted to condemn the firings and support the teachers.  Fairly quickly, the Parent Teachers Association of Little Rock, the Arkansas Education Association, League of Women Voters, and Little Rock Ministerial Alliance joined in the call condemning the action.  Leadership at the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce also joined in decrying the purge.

And the fallout was just beginning……

Little Rock Look Back: LR Voters ratify closing of high schools

fedgovark

Signs placed outside of Little Rock’s high schools erroneously cited the federal government as the source of school closures.

On September 27, 1958, voters in Little Rock approved the continuation of the closure of the city’s high schools.

Using legislation passed by the General Assembly in a hastily called special session in summer of 1958, Governor Orval Faubus had ordered the closure of Little Rock’s four public high schools in order to keep them from being desegregated.  But that state law only allowed the closure of Central, Hall, Horace Mann and Technical high schools on a temporary basis. In order for them to be closed permanently, the city’s voters must approve it by a vote.

The election date was to be set by Governor Faubus.  Originally scheduled for Tuesday, October 7, the date was moved to September 27.  Speculation for the new date selection centered on:

  • Faubus wanted it to be prior to the October 1 poll tax deadline so that only people who had paid their poll tax for the prior year were eligible
  • The election was on a Saturday.  Though Tuesday was the most common day of the week for elections, in the late 1950s Saturdays were used on elections as well.  The school board elections, for instance, were on Saturdays in some years.
  • On September 27, 1958, the Arkansas Razorbacks had a home football game in Fayetteville.

These were all designed to stifle voter turnout. In addition, the state law required a majority of eligible voters to approve reopening the schools.  The law also spelled out the confusing wording of the ballot question.  As historian Sondra Gordy points out in her book FINDING THE LOST YEAR, the ballot question was about only being for or against integration of the schools – it did not say anything about closure or opening of schools.

While the newly formed Women’s Emergency Committee did try to educate voters about the issue and encourage a vote to reopen the schools, this nascent group was less than a fortnight old by the Saturday election day.  In addition, the Governor campaigned for the remaining closure of the schools including in television appearances.

On that Saturday, Little Rock voters voted 19,470 to keep schools segregated to 7,561 to integrate them.

It would be a long road ahead to reopen the schools.  It would take two more elections before the City’s four public high schools would reopen.