John Kirk (Royal Holloway & Bedford College, University of London)



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Facilitating Change: The Arkansas Council on Human Relations, 1954-1964

John Kirk (Royal Holloway & Bedford College, University of London)

Formed in December 1954, the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR) grew out of the reorganization of the board of the Arkansas Division of the Southern Regional Council (SRC) established in 1940.1 The ACHR existed for almost twenty years before merging with the Little Rock branch of the Urban League in May 1974.2 During its first decade, the period covered in this essay, like many other civil rights organizations the ACHR focused intently on the goal of desegregation, first in the schools, then later in public facilities and accommodations. Reflecting back on its first ten years in operation, ACHR executive director Nat R. Griswold noted in 1964 that the organization had been “committed from the beginning to the view that the majority and the minority could solve any problems in any community without rancor, and do it fairly.” Griswold described the conference table as the ACHR’s chief weapon and conceded “We have not claimed to be a mass movement or force or power and have never attempted to be.”3 The self-effacing comments were wholly consistent with the task the ACHR set itself in its 1954 mission statement, “to be a service agency; a clearing house disseminating information, funded experience, suggestive of action to local groups; supplying counsellors for officials and administrators, speakers and resource materials on group relations; correlating the efforts of individuals and organizations working for better human relations in Arkansas.”4 To be sure, the ACHR fulfilled these goals as a service organization, but it did much more besides. The ACHR provided an important hub of communication between blacks and whites throughout a period of racial polarization. It provided moral and legal support for school officials at a time of crisis. It exerted pressure on white community leaders to embrace peaceful racial change. It nurtured local black leaders and organizations by providing positions of leadership responsibility and acting as a forum for inter- as well as intra-racial contact. It provided a vital bridge between national and regional organizations within the civil rights movement and those at a local level. With few resources and little fanfare, the ACHR’s seemingly modest goals actually placed it many times at the heart of the process of racial change in Arkansas.

The 1954 formation of the ACHR was in line with SRC policy throughout the South to establish new and more dynamic affiliates with the specific task of helping to ease the process of school desegregation at state and local levels after the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. To that end, the SRC received a Ford Foundation grant out of which the ACHR was partly funded.5 Chairman of the newly constituted board was Fred K. Darragh, Jr., a native Arkansan, chair of Darragh Company Agribusiness, and a millionaire businessman and philanthropist. Darragh was a war hero who flew planes with military provisions from India over the Himalayas to China during the second world war. Throughout his life, Darragh committed his personal funds to many different causes. These ranged from purely personal acts of kindness such as helping to fund the college education of the son of Tenzig Noray, the sherpa who surmounted Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, to later founding and financing the Arkansas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.6 In keeping with the self-conscious biracial policy that the ACHR pursued throughout its existence, the first vice chair was Rev. Charles C. Walker, the black pastor of Little Rock’s First Congregationalist Church.7 Nevertheless, it was the second vice chair, Harry S. Ashmore, executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette, who alongside Darragh proved the most influential force in the founding of the organization. Ashmore, a native of Greenville, South Carolina, joined the Arkansas Gazette in 1947. He already had a number of years’ experience as a journalist and was working as editor of the Charlotte News in North Carolina when approached by the Gazette’s owner J. N. Hieskell to take over as editor. Like Darragh, Ashmore was a war veteran, taking part in European campaigns and rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army during the second world war. As with many other returning G.I.’s, Ashmore urged the building of a more progressive South. His editorials at the Arkansas Gazette supported two-party politics, racial and religious tolerance, the right of blacks to vote, and higher pay for teachers. These editorals enhanced the importance of the newspaper as a significant force for modernization in Arkansas and counterbalanced the more conservative bent of its major competitor the Arkansas Democrat.8

The first task of the newly founded AHCR was to appoint an executive director and associate director. These two posts would form the core of the ACHR’s active staff for most of its functioning life. From the outset, the two positions were split between a white person and a black person. The first executive director, and the most influential guiding force in the ACHR’s first decade, was Nat R. Griswold. Griswold, a native Arkansan and an ordained Methodist minister, was educated at Henderson-Brown College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and then at Northwestern University and Columbia University. He taught for twelve years as Associate Professor of Religion at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and served as Director of Community Activities at Arkansas’s Japanese-American Relocation Center during the second world war. In 1954, he took a job in Austin, Texas, as Secretary of Peace Education for the Quaker-run American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in the Southwest. It was from that position that Griswold moved to the post of ACHR executive director.9 Griswold reported that he was “quite excited about work in Arkansas. It will be a privilege to be associated with you in the effort to relieve tensions and to ‘oil’ the process of integration in the state. In a sense this is the greatest challenge that has ever come to me, more appealing because of its element of hazard.”10 Christopher C. Mercer was appointed associate director. Mercer, a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, was among the first group of black lawyers to graduate from the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville after it voluntarily desegregated in 1948 under pressure from national NAACP-sponsored litigation and demands from local black activists.11 After graduation, Mercer moved back to Pine Bluff where he worked in the same law practice as fellow black University of Arkansas Law School graduate Wiley A. Branton. At the insistence of Branton, a fellow ACHR board member, Mercer accepted the ACHR position.12 The ACHR used Mercer’s home address at 211 Izard in Little Rock as its headquarters from 1955 to 1957. Frederick B. Routh, SRC Assistant Director for State Organizations, approved the choice of two “highly qualified people” and Griswold and Mercer began operations on April 15, 1955.13 In July 1955, Darragh, Walker and Ashmore incorporated the ACHR under Arkansas law as a non-profit organization.14 The total ACHR membership at that time stood at 72, most of who were based in Little Rock.15

Though Griswold found excitement in the “element of hazard” that the job entailed, in fact there was great expectation that in Arkansas the transition to desegregated schools would be a relatively smooth process. The semi-southern state had an unusual topography. Drawing a diagonal line from the northeastern to the southwestern corner of Arkansas identified two very different regions.16 The southeastern half of the state was an area very much allied to the lower South. From the 1830s onwards, the cotton plantations of eastern Arkansas that dominated the area began a mass importation of black slave labor. After the Civil War, many blacks remained tied to the land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers as a modified plantation system persisted well into the twentieth century.17 Over 90% of Arkansas black population resided there concentrated mostly in five delta counties.18 Eastern Arkansas shared much of the same racial history as the neighboring Mississippi delta. White oppression, lynching and sporadic outbreaks of extreme mass violence characterized race relations in the region.19 The northwest of Arkansas was a region of rolling hills and mountains and at first-glance it appeared to have more in common with the West or Mid-west than the South. Indeed, many of the counties in the northwestern corner of the state opposed southern secession from the United States in 1861 and some even sided with the Union rather than the Confederacy during the Civil War.20 Traditionally, since the plantation system did not extend into this area, very few blacks lived there. The economy of the region, such as it was, revolved mainly around small-scale milk, poultry and cattle farms, and fruit and berry raising.21 Less than 5% of the total black population in the state resided there and many counties had no black population at all.22 The paucity of the black population notwithstanding, the region had its own particular racial outlook, mixing latent anti-black sentiment with a mountain folk distrust of strangers.23 Residents made sure that blacks remained unwelcome, with signs posted at points of entry to villages and towns declaring “Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger.” Only the larger towns of Eureka Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville allowed black travelers to stay overnight.24

Little Rock was the lynchpin located right in the center of the state. “In no other Southern city,” wrote Ashmore, “is the upland and lowland culture so directly joined.”25 Little Rock’s development saw the city, originally established as state capital in 1821 to provide a convenient center for government and business administration servicing rural Arkansas, grow into the state’s leading post-war urban community.26 The second world war proved a decisive turning point in that development, with a tight-knit white business elite guiding the city in growth and prosperity by successfully campaigning for an army base and winning millions of dollars in federal wartime investment. The business elite’s success in luring northern investment continued apace after the war as it molded Little Rock into a progressive New South city.27 The election of Sidney Sanders McMath as governor in 1948 seemed to confirm a sea change in the state. McMath was part of a southwide political movement comprising returning G.I.’s that pressed for regional reform based on a platform that pledged better public health, education and welfare, promoting economic growth and industrialization as a cure for southern financial and social ills. Many of the G. I. politicians recognized that to make a start on tackling poverty and social backwardness in the South inevitably meant including blacks in their program of reform.28 In 1948, President-elect Harry S. Truman hailed McMath as “governor of one of the most progressive states in the Union...Arkansas stands on the threshold of a great opportunity. It can go forward with progress under...enlightened leadership.”29

There were certainly signs in the postwar era that economic progress might lead to reform in race relations. In 1948, the University of Arkansas Law School voluntarily desegregated. Later the same year, the Medical School at Little Rock enrolled its first black student.30 Little Rock led the way with a series of reforms. The first sign of change came with the tentative experiment of desegregating the public library. Blacks also gained admission to a selected few of the city’s segregated public parks, though the use of the swimming pools or the golf course was prohibited. The Little Rock Zoo began to admit blacks, but only on Thursdays, and with use of the amusement park and picnic areas discouraged. Pfeiffer’s, a downtown department store, built a segregated lunch counter to cater for black clients who were previously refused service altogether. Other establishments took down the “white” and “colored” signs from their drinking fountains, but still stringently enforced segregated restrooms. Downtown hotels began to relax their policy of segregation by allowing interracial groups such as the Little Rock Urban League to hold meetings at their facilities, but still seated blacks and whites at different tables for lunch. By the early 1950s, hotels were accepting group bookings of visiting black sports teams while still prohibiting any black individuals from occupying a room. The Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat changed their policy of denying courtesy titles of “Mr.” and “Mrs.” to blacks by dropping “Mr.” altogether except for members of the clergy (black and white) and applying “Mrs.” equally. The first press pictures of blacks in white newspapers began to appear. The Arkansas Democrat even hired Ozell Sutton, the first black reporter to work for a white newspaper, to write a weekly column about news in the black community.31

Despite the promising start, there was still a degree of ambiguity about exactly what these changes meant. In 1952, McMath’s administration came to a halt, as did many other so-called “G.I. governments” across the South, as the drive for economic and social progress crumbled due to a conservative retrenchment and allegations of corruption. The changes to the color line in the state were largely limited to the urban center of Little Rock. Even here, they constituted a modification rather than an elimination of the practice of segregation. True, within the context of a hitherto rigid system of racial exclusion, the malleability of the color line was significant and a cause for cautious optimism. Equally, the changes could be interpreted as a tentative tokenism that sought to instigate the absolute minimum to keep the local black population happy and to thereby stave off lawsuits that might lead to more stringent federal action. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision challenged the city to prove that its progressivism was a matter of substance rather than style.

Harry S. Ashmore was an optimist. “Looking out over the debris this morning, I’m right proud of the South,” Ashmore wrote the day after the Brown decision was handed down. “Herman Talmadge exploded on schedule, but virtually every other southern politician of standing took the high ground....[I]f I had to define the prevailing feeling here—and I believe this is generally true all over the South except for the really hot spots—I would say that it is one of relief that the other shoe has finally dropped. I think I can see the beginning of the time I have always dreamed of—when you can conduct a conversation in the South without it having to degenerate into an argument over where a man should sit in a street car.” He was particularly impressed by the way the Supreme Court had handed down its unanimous decision while delaying implementation guidelines for a year. “The unanimous opinion spiked many a gun, and the setting of the new precedent well in advance of handing down the specific decrees was a master-stroke. It gives everybody time to get used to the idea, and opens the possibility of intelligent and specific argument on ways and means before the Court.”32

Ashmore’s optimism appeared to be borne out by developments in Arkansas. Several school districts in the northwest of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Charleston, and Bentonville, immediately moved to desegregate since it was cheaper to provide an integrated education for their few black students. In contrast, many other southern states saw no progress at all. Also unlike other southern states, no widespread, organized campaign of resistance to school desegregation developed. New governor Oraval E. Faubus won election in November 1954 without taking any firm stance on the issue of school desegregation. Moreover, the state legislature delayed the one direct attempt to circumvent the Brown decision. State representatives from eastern Arkansas introduced a Pupil Assignment bill to the 1955 Arkansas General Assembly designed to evade school desegregation by assigning black students to black schools and white students to white schools on grounds other than race. A divided assembly agreed to delay the implementation of the measure until after the Supreme Court had announced its school desegregation implementation order. The opposition to legislation designed to circumvent Brown indicated the presence of law-abiding influences in Arkansas that could hold at bay attempts by militant segregationists to align the state with massive resistance elsewhere in the South.33

A great deal of responsibility rested with Little Rock to provide leadership within the state. As one concerned superintendent of schools from Union County in south central Arkansas put it “I don’t like to see a leading community like Little Rock take the lead too fast.... In the end, other communities will have to follow suit.” Positive steps by the state capital for compliance held the potential to weaken the crusade for the circumvention of school desegregation in eastern Arkansas. Conversely, a posture of defiance could prove extremely damaging to further progress. Therefore, what happened in Little Rock held the potential to influence the statewide pattern for school desegregation.34 The ACHR was very much alert to that fact and therefore targeted much of its resources into influencing the plans for school desegregation put forward by the Little Rock school board and particularly by superintendent of schools Virgil T. Blossom, who was central to drawing up those plans.35 Initial indications were positive. The day after the Brown decision, Blossom announced that the school district would make plans for peaceful compliance. He subsequently announced that school desegregation could not begin until September 1957 since the school district need time to build new facilities, since the existing Central High School was already overcrowded. Two new schools would be needed. Horace Mann, to the southeast, would be built in a predominantly black part of the city and would have a school attendance area comprising 300 white students and 607 black students. Hall High, to the northwest, would be built in a predominantly white affluent area of the suburbs and would have a school attendance area comprising 700 white students and no black students. Downtown Central High would be left with a school attendance area of 1,712 white students and 200 black students.36 Most people including, significantly, members of the Little Rock NAACP branch, were willing to go along with these plans which appeared a reasonable program for school desegregation.37

Yet the way Blossom set about preparing the community for school desegregation awoke worries in many individuals and organizations, including the ACHR. After the ACHR met with Blossom, Griswold noted a “great lack of planning for bi-racial meetings of parents in small groups in preparation for integration,” exactly the sort of area where the ACHR felt that it could be most helpful.38 Despite repeated attempts to offer assistance, the ACHR drew a blank. “He [Blossom] did not confer in the ordinary sense,” Griswold later reflected. “He fervently explained and defended a position, his. In response to any thoughtful contrary opinion, usually he said something like this: ‘You have a right to your view, but this is our plan.’” According to Griswold, Blossom’s reputation for stonewalling preceded him from his days as superintendent of schools at Fayetteville, where patrons also reported having problems “getting through” to him. Instead, Blossom “seemed to cultivate the friendship of strong businessmen. Very often he could be located at one of the downtown hotels at coffee or lunch with these associates. A personal need seemed to have been met by the fact that he was named ‘Young Man of the Year’ at Fayetteville and ‘Little Rock Man of the Year,’ a fact that he cited more than once.” Blossom’s obsession with Little Rock’s school desegregation plan, which quickly became know as the “Blossom Plan,” turned its pursuit into a personal crusade. “It was his plan. He identified his personal success with its success. To defend it, to implement it, to anticipate the plaudits it should bring gave him a sense of mission.” There were distinctly insidious undertones to Blossom’s obstinacy. He believed that he had found “the admissions device by which the requirements of the courts could be met, and, at the same time, by which only a few Negro students would be enrolled in formerly white schools. Th[e] intent of the plan [was] to guarantee an extended life to the dual school system....He was the author of one of the earliest plans for school desegregation in the South [and] he was at the same time guardian of its built-in, submerged features which provided a way for schools in the South to avoid the dreaded consequences of integration.”39



Blossom’s plan to follow a policy of minimum compliance with Brown became clear in 1955 after the Supreme Court handed down its implementation order. The court’s implementation order, which became known as Brown II, appeared to play right into the hands of Blossom. Brown II ambiguously told school boards that they must make a “prompt and reasonable start” to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” No definite deadline was set for when integration had to begin and there was no indication of what exactly constituted compliance with the Brown decision in terms of how many students were to be integrated and at what grades. The Court even listed the “local problems” that might be given as reasonable excuses for delay. Moreover, the Court decentralized the task of administrating school desegregation by handing this responsibility to federal district judges and to local school boards. The overall message to the South seemed to be that it could take as long as it wanted to desegregate schools.40

Brown II proved an important turning point for school desegregation in Arkansas. In Little Rock, Blossom announced plans to modify his original school desegregation proposals. The most important development was the introduction of a transfer system that would allow students to move out of their assigned school attendance zone. Under the original Blossom Plan it was clear that schools were being located to provide attendance areas that would ensure a majority black Horace Mann High and an exclusively white Hall High. The subsequent assignment of black students to Horace Mann, although they lived closer to Central High, confirmed the intentions of the school board to limit the impact of desegregation as much as possible.41 The newly modified Blossom Plan also allowed whites to opt out of attendance at Horace Mann without giving blacks the right to choose to attend Hall High and allowed for only token integration at Central High. To encourage the shift of white pupils from Horace Mann the school board clearly designated it as a black institution by assigning an all-black teaching staff there. The school board then declared that it intended to open Horace Mann as a segregated black school in February 1956, a move that would establish a clear precedent for black attendance the year before the school was due to desegregate.42
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