Tag Archives: Robert Laster

Little Rock Look Back: CROSS formed to Stop STOP

On May 16, 1959, a new organization emerged in an effort to keep Little Rock schools segregated.

The Committee to Retain Our Segregated Schools (CROSS) was launched by Rev. M. L. Moser, Jr., the pastor of Central Baptist Church.  The three leading segregationist organizations in Little Rock disavowed any connection to it.  Representatives from the Capitol Citizens Council, Central High Mother’s League and States Rights Council noted that he was not affiliated with them.

Approximately 300 people attended the CROSS kick off event at the Hotel Marion.   Joining Rev. Moser as a speaker at the rally was LRSD School Board President Ed McKinley.  It was announced that the CROSS office would be at 108 Scott Street.  Robert D. Lee was the campaign treasurer.

With STOP advocating for the removal of McKinley, Ben Rowland and Robert Laster from the school board, CROSS was now out to recall Everett Tucker, Ted Lamb and Russell Matson.

With the election on May 25, the final nine days were going to be intense.

 

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Little Rock Look Back: Date set for 1959 Recall Election

On May 15, 1959, the Pulaski County Election Commission met to discuss the competing efforts to recall members of the Little Rock School Board.

The day prior, the Pulaski County Clerk had certified that petitions had enough valid signatures to have an election about recalling School Board members Ed McKinley, Robert Laster and Ben Rowland. There were also enough valid signatures to put before voters the recall of Ted Lamb, Everett Tucker and Russell Matson.

Because all of the school board members were to be on the ballot, the Election body decided to list them each alphabetically.  For each person there would be the question as to whether he should be recalled and voters would indicate “yes” or “no.”

The date of May 25, 1959, was set for the election.

It would be open to anyone with a valid 1958 poll tax receipt.  Voters must also live within the Little Rock School District boundaries (which were not coterminous with the city limits). They must have been residents of Arkansas for a year by election day, residents of Pulaski County for six months, and resided within their precinct for 30 days.

Meanwhile supporters of both trios were hard at work.  STOP had been in existence for a week to promote the efforts to recall the segregationist faction of the school board.  While the Central High Mothers League and Capitol Citizens Council had been working to recall the other three members of the school board, rumors were swirling about the emergence of a new organization which sought to fight for segregation.

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……