Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Sixty Years of the Little Rock Nine

Sixty years ago today the Little Rock Nine entered Central High School and stayed. On one hand, this brought to the end a nearly month long standoff between segregationists and those who wanted to obey the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.

In the bigger picture, the struggle did not end that day.  Throughout the remainder of the school year, the Little Rock Nine were subjected to threats, isolation and hostility.  Outside of the school, while the crowds may had dispersed after September 25, the raw feelings did not subside.

This was evidenced by the fact that the following year the high schools were closed to avoid having them integrated.

But September 25, 1957, was an historic day in the United States. Under guard of members of the 101st Airborne Division of the Army, the Little Rock Nine were escorted into Central High School. This action by President Dwight Eisenhower was the result of the intrusive efforts of Governor Orval Faubus who had used the Arkansas National Guard to keep the nine students out.

The City of Little Rock was largely a bystander in this issue. The form of government was changing from Mayor-Council to City Manager in November 1957. Therefore Mayor Woodrow Mann and the entire City Council were lame ducks. Mann, whose son was a senior at Central, tried to focus on keeping the peace in Little Rock. Most (if not all) of his Council members sided with the Governor.

Congressman Brooks Hays, a Little Rock resident, had tried to broker an agreement between the President and the Governor but was unsuccessful.  Following that, Mayor Mann was in discussions with the White House about the ability of the Little Rock Police Department to maintain order.  Finally, in the interest of public safety, the President federalized the National Guard and removed them. This paved the way for the Army to come in.

Though the school year was not easy, the nine youths who became known worldwide as the Little Rock Nine were finally in school.  They were Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton, Governor Mike Huckabee and Mayor Jim Dailey, famously held open the doors of Central High for the Little Rock Nine on the 40th anniversary.  Ten years later, Clinton, Huckabee and Dailey returned joined by Governor Mike Beebe and Mayor Mark Stodola to host the 50th anniversary events.

Today, President Clinton was once again at Central.  This time he was joined by Governor Asa Hutchinson and Mayor Stodola.  Two people who have played parts in organizing all three of these commemorations are City Manager Bruce T. Moore and Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau.  Others, such as Skip Rutherford and Annie Abrams have participated in all three commemorations.

In light of its role in history, the school is a National Historic Site, while still functioning as a high school.

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Little Rock Look Back: Little Rock Nine in Central for a few hours

centralentranceOn Monday, September 23, 1957, the Little Rock Nine entered Central High School for a few hours.

The previous Friday, Federal District Judge Ronald Davies ruled that Governor Faubus had used the National Guard to keep the Little Rock Nine out of the school.  At this point, the Governor withdrew the troops.  The duty of maintaining any order on the site and ensuring the safety of the students now fell solely on the Little Rock Police Department.

To minimize interactions with aggressive protestors who were outside of the school, the Nine were escorted into the side of the school.  Word quickly spread that they had made it into the building.  This caused the 1,000 or more people out front to become more hostile.

Threats were called into the building. Some parents of white children called wanting to get their students out of the building.  Some students snuck out of the building, while at the same time some of the crowd were trying to sneak in.  The situation was tense and getting more so by the minute.

Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann and police leadership were concerned about the ability of the City to protect the Nine and maintain order.  The Fire Department refused to use water from a firehose to disperse the crowd.

For the safety of the Little Rock Nine the students were removed from the building after having been in it only a few hours.

 


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Little Rock Look Back: Louis Armstrong speaks out

As the Civil Rights movement started taking hold in the mid-1950s, many African American entertainers were vocal in their support.  Louis Armstrong stayed silent.  Until, that is, September 17, 1957.

That night, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Armstrong blasted President Dwight Eisenhower for his lack of action to make Governor Orval Faubus obey the law.  This was in an interview conducted by a 21 year old University of North Dakota journalism student named Larry Lubenow.

Journalist David Margolick wrote about the incident in The New York Times in September 2007 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School.  He recounted how the story, written for the Grand Forks Herald, was picked up all over the country.  The entire Margolick piece can be read here.  Margolick tells that when Armstrong was given the chance to back off the comments, he asserted that he meant all of it.

On September 24, 1957, the night that the 101st Airborne was being mobilized to come into Little Rock, Armstrong sent Eisenhower a telegram again criticizing him for lack of action.  He used colorful language which sarcastically spoofed the “Uncle Tom” moniker which some of his critics had bestowed when they felt he was not doing enough for Civil Rights.  The Eisenhower Presidential Library has a copy of that telegram.  The incident between Satchmo and Ike was the basis for two different plays: Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf and Ishmael Reed’s The C Above C Above High C.


Little Rock Look Back: Labor Day Bombings of 1959

Labor Day Bomb

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: US Supreme Court decision in BATES V. LITTLE ROCK

bates daisyOn February 23, 1960, the U. S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Daisy BATES et al., Petitioners, v. CITY OF LITTLE ROCK et al.  This case had been argued before the Court in November 1959.

Daisy Bates of Little Rock and Birdie Williams of North Little Rock were the petitioners.  Each had been convicted of violating an identical ordinance of an Arkansas municipality by refusing a demand to furnish city officials with a list of the names of the members of a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The question for decision was whether these convictions can stand under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Little Rock ordinance (10,638) was passed on October 14, 1957. It charged that certain non-profits were actually functioning as businesses and using non-profit status to skirt the law. Therefore it required the non-profits to disclose their members and sources of dues.  North Little Rock passed an identical ordinance.

(Mayor Woodrow Mann was not present at the meeting of the LR Council when the ordinance was passed. But he signed all of the resolutions and ordinances approved that night.  Ordinance 10,638 was the only legislation that night which had also been signed by Acting Mayor Franklin Loy.  Mayor Mann crossed through Loy’s name and signed his own.)

Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Williams as keepers of the records for their respective chapters of the NAACP refused to comply with the law.  While they provided most of the information requested, they contended they did not have to provide the membership rosters and dues paid.

After refusing upon further demand to submit the names of the members of her organization, each was tried, convicted, and fined for a violation of the ordinance of her respective municipality. At the Bates trial evidence was offered to show that many former members of the local organization had declined to renew their membership because of the existence of the ordinance in question. Similar evidence was received in the Williams trial, as well as evidence that those who had been publicly identified in the community as members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been subjected to harassment and threats of bodily harm.

Each woman was convicted in the court of Pulaski Circuit Court, First Division, William J. KirbyJudge. They were fined $25 a person.  On appeal the cases were consolidated in the Supreme Court of Arkansas in 1958. The convictions were upheld by five justices with George Rose Smith and J. Seaborn Holt dissenting.

Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Williams then appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court.  The pair’s legal team included Robert L. Carter and George Howard, Jr. (who would later become a federal judge).  Little Rock City Attorney Joseph Kemp argued the case for the City.  The arguments before the U. S. Supreme Court were heard on November 18, 1959.

The SCOTUS decision was written by Associate Justice Potter Stewart.  He was joined by Chief Justice Earl Warren and Associate Justices Felix Frankfurter, Tom C. Clark, John M. Harlan II, William J. Brennan and Charles E. Whittaker.  Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas wrote a concurring opinion.

The U. S. Supreme Court reversed the lower courts.

In sum, there is a complete failure in this record to show (1) that the organizations were engaged in any occupation for which a license would be required, even if the occupation were conducted for a profit; (2) that the cities have ever asserted a claim against the organizations for payment of an occupation license tax; (3) that the organizations have ever asserted exemption from a tax imposed by the municipalities, either because of their alleged nonprofit character or for any other reason.

We conclude that the municipalities have failed to demonstrate a controlling justification for the deterrence of free association which compulsory disclosure of the membership lists would cause. The petitioners cannot be punished for refusing to produce information which the municipalities could not constitutionally require. The judgments cannot stand.

In their concurring opinion, Justices Black and Douglas wrote that they felt the facts not only violated freedom of speech and assembly from the First Amendment, but also aspects of the Fourteenth Amendment. They wrote that the freedom of assembly (including freedom of association) was a principle to be applied “to all people under our Constitution irrespective of their race, color, politics, or religion. That is, for us, the essence of the present opinion of the Court.”

Neither the Gazette or Democrat carried any reaction from City leaders. There was a City Board meeting the evening of the decision. If it was mentioned, the minutes from the meeting do not reflect it.

Arkansas Attorney General Bruce Bennett, on the other hand, was very vocal in his outrage. The city laws were known as Bennett Laws because they had been drafted by him as ways to intimidate African Americans and others he viewed as agitators.

In 1960 Bennett was challenging Governor Orval Faubus for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.  In reaction to the to the Supreme Court he vowed that, if elected Governor, he would “de-integrate” (a term he proudly took credit for coining) the state.

For his part, and not to be outdone by the AG, Faubus fretted that the Court’s decision meant that Communists would be able to give money to the NAACP.


Black History Month – Louis Armstrong and Robinson Center

louis-armstrong3Louis Armstrong played Robinson Auditorium several times during his career.  He also played other venues in Little Rock.

As the Civil Rights movement started taking hold in the mid-1950s, many African American entertainers were vocal in their support.  Armstrong stayed silent.  Until, that is, September 17, 1957.  That night, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, he blasted President Dwight Eisenhower for his lack of action to make Governor Orval Faubus obey the law.  This was in an interview conducted by a 21 year old University of North Dakota journalism student named Larry Lubenow.

Journalist David Margolick wrote about the incident in The New York Times in September 2007 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School.  He recounted how the story, written for the Grand Forks Herald, was picked up all over the country.  The entire Margolick piece can be read here.  Margolick tells that when Armstrong was given the chance to back off the comments, he asserted that he meant all of it.

On September 24, 1957, the night that the 101st Airborne was being mobilized to come into Little Rock, Armstrong sent Eisenhower a telegram again criticizing him for lack of action.  He used colorful language which sarcastically spoofed the “Uncle Tom” moniker which some of his critics had bestowed when they felt he was not doing enough for Civil Rights.  The Eisenhower Presidential Library has a copy of that telegram.  The incident between Satchmo and Ike was the basis for two different plays: Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf and Ishmael Reed’s The C Above C Above High C.

Armstrong would again play a part in Little Rock’s Civil Rights history.  In September 1966, he played the first major concert in Robinson Auditorium that was before a fully integrated audience.  Since the early 1960s, there had been a few sporadic concerts which had been before integrated audiences. But the policy of the Auditorium Commission remained that the building was to be segregated.  Following the approval of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, public facilities had to be integrated. Louis Armstrong played before a full house at Robinson Auditorium that night.  With Orval Faubus still Arkansas’ governor, Armstrong was not too interested in staying in Little Rock very long. He left town quickly after the concert was concluded.


Little Rock Look Back: Boxing Day remembrance of Muhammad Ali vs. Dan Sprick

Ali SprickDan T. Sprick was a Little Rock Mayor for two years in the 1940s after having previously served on the City Council.  From 1961 until 1970, he served as a State Senator from Little Rock and was a reliable ally for Governor Orval Faubus. Once Faubus left office and was replaced by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, Sprick continued to wave the banner of segregation and agitation.  One of his new focuses was boxer Muhammad Ali.

In 1969, the University of Arkansas announced that Ali would be one of the speakers for its public appearance series.  After refusing to be drafted and go to Vietnam, Ali was barred from earning a living as a professional boxer and so was making a living giving lectures.  His refusal to submit to the draft was based on his religious beliefs as a recent convert to the Nation of Islam.

Opposition to Ali’s appearance rose almost immediately, and from Little Rock not Fayetteville. The Pulaski Businessman’s Association sent a letter to UA president David Mullins asking him to bar Ali from speaking. President Mullins insisted that he had the right to speak on campus. When that didn’t work, Senator Sprick and his cohorts in the state’s upper chamber went to work. A resolution calling for Ali to be barred from speaking failed on a voice vote after much debate.

While there were certainly some racial overtones to Sprick’s opposition, he and others seemed to be more concerned over the former Cassius Clay’s conversion to Islam plus his ensuing refusal to be drafted.  Senator Sprick declared that if President Nixon would draft him now he would go to serve in Vietnam.  (Sprick was in his late 60s at the time.)

Ali’s speech on the campus actually caused some controversy on its own.  One of the things he advocated for segregation. He praised Alabama Governor George Wallace.  The Arkansas Gazette which had been following the saga in both news stories and editorials, noted that remarks like that should have endeared Ali to Dan Sprick and others.

Ali, of course, resumed his boxing career and defined that sport in the 1970s with his talent in the ring and his showmanship.

Based on an editorial, Sprick sued the Gazette for libel. The paper settled with him out of court because his health was poor. Sprick died in 1972.