By Dr. John A. Kirk
Arkansas is known nationally and internationally for the events surrounding the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School in September 1957. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to deploy the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school cemented the city’s place in civil rights history. Last year, the city was incorporated into a United States Civil Rights Trail (civilrightstrail.com), which is composed of more than 100 locations in 14 states and Washington, D.C.. But the civil rights movement in Arkansas stretches far beyond Little Rock. The state has a long, wide and rich civil rights heritage that could easily produce a civil rights trail of its own.
Any Arkansas civil rights trail must begin in the southeast part of the state, dominated by the Arkansas Delta, where the vast majority of the African American population has always resided. Pine Bluff has long been considered Arkansas’ black capital city. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (1200 University Dr.), founded in 1873 as Branch Normal College, serves as the seat of black higher education in the state. The downtown Masonic Temple (4th and State St.) was a hub for black businessmen and professionals and a center for black politics, society and culture for much of the twentieth century. Pine Bluff was also a base for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC – pronounced “snick”) in the 1960s and a launch pad for its other projects in Gould, Helena and Forrest City. During that time, SNCC was instrumental in orchestrating nonviolent direct-action demonstrations and campaigns for voting rights in the state. There is a marker at Freedom House (King and Locust Sts.) where the SNCC-inspired Pine Bluff Movement met.
From Pine Bluff, Highway 65 – recently renamed the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Highway (www.facebook.com/deltarhythmnbayousalliance/) – stretches down to the Louisiana border. Many musical luminaries came from this area, including Reydell’s William “Big Bill” Broonzy, who was one of the earliest musicians to take the blues to Europe in the 1950s and spread its influence there. Take a detour on County Road 4 to Arkansas City and see the John H. Johnson Museum and Educational Center (Courthouse Sq.) at his former childhood home. Johnson built a publishing empire that included Jet and Ebony magazines. At Lake Village, take the Greenville Bridge over to Mississippi and drive up to Memphis through the Mississippi Delta, an area steeped in its own civil rights and musical history.
Memphis is perhaps best known as the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968 while supporting the sanitation workers strike. King was shot on the balcony of the
Lorraine Motel, which is today home to the National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St.). After spending the morning there, have lunch at the Four Way Soul Food Restaurant (998 Mississippi Blvd.), reputedly King’s favorite restaurant in Memphis. In the afternoon, visit the nearby Stax Museum of American Soul Music (926 East McLemore Ave.) for a reminder of how closely entwined African American civil rights struggles and musical traditions are.
Crossing back over to Arkansas on the Hernando De Soto Bridge leads to West Memphis, where Lance Watson (alias Sweet Willie Wine), a member of the Memphis black power group the Invaders, set off on a four-day walk against fear to Little Rock along Highway 70 on August 20, 1969. The walk drew national coverage and gained Watson much notoriety. Head south to Helena and visit the Delta Cultural Center (141 Cherry Street) to gain an overview of the region’s history and culture, and Freedom Park (700 South Biscoe) to learn about the black experience in Arkansas during the Civil War. Latinos also played an important role in Delta history through the Bracero Program that brought in thousands of Mexican workers to meet labor shortages from the 1940s through the 1960s, when many blacks left the state to pursue opportunities elsewhere. After Helena, take County Road 44 to Elaine to see the site of what may be America’s largest mass shooting. In 1919, when black sharecroppers tried to organize a union, the attempt was brutally suppressed by local whites with the assistance of U.S. troops from Camp Pike in Little Rock. The precise body count is still unknown, but estimates run into the hundreds. A number of commemorations are planned across the state this year to mark the centennial of the Elaine Massacre. The Elaine Legacy Center (313 College Ave.) proclaims the town the “Motherland of Civil Rights.”
Next, explore civil rights history in the northeast part of the state. The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum (117 S. Main St.) in Tyronza provides an introduction to the pioneering Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). The STFU was founded in 1934 and, unusually, brought together a biracial coalition of black and white farmers to fight for better tenant farmer and sharecropper rights. Nearby in Dyess is the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home (110 Center Dr.). Cash campaigned for prisoner and Native American rights, reflected in songs he recorded such as “San Quentin” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” which was about the fate of a Native American soldier who was one of six U.S. Marines to raise the American flag on Iwo Jima in 1945. Further north is Hoxie, home to one of the earliest integration battles in Arkansas after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. The Hoxie school board voted to desegregate in 1955 because it was “right in the sight of God,” the school superintendent said. When Life magazine reported the event with a full picture spread, segregationists from around the state descended on the town. The Hoxie school board stood firm, and the segregationists beat a retreat. There are currently plans to build a Hoxie Civil Rights Museum (www.facebook.com/hoxiecivilrightsmuseum/) to tell the story.
From Hoxie, drive down Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67 to Little Rock, then to southwest Arkansas on I-30. Drop in at Hot Springs, which for many years has been a popular tourist destination. In 1937, Rep. Arthur Wergs Mitchell from Illinois, at the time the only African American serving in U.S. Congress, decided to take a vacation there. When his train crossed the Arkansas state line, a conductor evicted him from his Pullman sleeper coach, enforcing state segregation law. Mitchell won a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1941 and later settled the matter out of court. Hot Springs is also the birthplace of Mamie Phipps Clark, whose psychological research along with her husband Kenneth B. Clark proved critical in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to hand down its 1954 Brown decision. Many of Hot Springs’ famous bath houses were segregated for much of the twentieth century, a story told at the Hot Springs National Park (101 Reserve St.). There are plans to open a museum of African American history at the John L. Webb House (403 Pleasant St.). Webb was a prominent black contractor and philanthropist in the city.
Down in the corner of southwest Arkansas is Stamps, where celebrated author and poet Maya Angelou spent her childhood, which she recalls in her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Stamps’ city park and Lake June are now named in her honor. Another Stamps notable, William Harold Flowers, was a trailblazing attorney who laid the foundations for the civil rights movement in the state. In 1940, Flowers formed the Committee on Negro Organizations in Stamps and began one of the first statewide voter registration drives. His success attracted outside help from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which set up a state conference of branches in 1945. In 1948, Flowers became state NAACP president, paving the way for his friend Daisy Bates to succeed him in 1952. Daisy and her husband L.C. Bates owned and ran the Arkansas State Press newspaper in Little Rock from 1941 to 1959 and were mentors to the Little Rock Nine. Daisy Bates was born and raised in Huttig near the Louisiana state border. She writes a powerful chapter about her experiences growing up there in her memoir The Long Shadow of Little Rock (1962).
Head back to Little Rock and take I-40 to the northwest part of the state. Stop off at Petit Jean Mountain just outside Morrilton, where, in 1953 Winthrop Rockefeller, the grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, bought land to construct Winrock Farms. Winthrop Rockefeller had sat on the board of the civil rights organization the National Urban League since 1940. He immediately began breaking racial barriers at Winrock Farms when he appointed trusted employee and friend James “Jimmy” Hudson as general superintendent. It is said that Hudson was the first African American to ever spend the night on Petit Jean, which had previously been a “sundown mountain” – a place where blacks were not allowed to stay after nightfall. A number of similar “sundown towns” were scattered across Arkansas. Rockefeller made an even greater impact as governor between 1967 and 1971. The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute (1 Rockefeller Dr.), located on top of Petit Jean Mountain, contains an exhibit documenting Rockefeller’s life and engagement with civil rights.
Morrilton was the eastern anchor in the Arkansas River Valley for black education. Sullivan High School took in black students from many surrounding districts that had small black populations and could not afford to run their own segregated schools. When Morrilton raised its tuition fees in 1964, it forced many of those school districts to desegregate. At the western end of the Arkansas River Valley, Fort Smith’s Lincoln High School also accepted black students from surrounding districts, including those from nearby Charleston, which became the first school district in Arkansas – and one of the first in the South – to desegregate in August 1954. Charleston attorney and future Arkansas governor and U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers, played a leading role in convincing townsfolk to do the right thing. Fort Smith will host the future United States Marshals Museum (usmmuseum.org/), scheduled to open in fall 2019. No doubt it will include the storied life of Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, who was born in Crawford County, Arkansas. Reeves was said to have apprehended more than 3,000 felons and shot 14 outlaws in self-defense during his career. A journey up I-49 takes you to Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas. In 1948, the university became the first in the South since Reconstruction to voluntarily admit a black student when it enrolled Silas Hunt, a World War II veteran from Ashdown, into the law school.
No Arkansas civil rights trail would be complete without a visit to Little Rock. The obvious place to start is the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site (2120 W. Daisy Gatson Bates Dr.). The Daisy Bates House (1207 W. 28th Street) is nearby. Don’t miss a visit to the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center (501 W. 9th Street), the state’s foremost museum of African American history. Other sites in the capital city are too numerous to mention, but fortunately, there’s an app for that! Download the Arkansas Civil Rights History Tour App (ualr.edu/race-ethnicity/arkansas-civil-rights-history-tour/) to find out more. The app tour ends at the UA Little Rock Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity’s Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which begins outside the Old State House (300 W. Markham St.). Launched in 2011, the trail celebrates Arkansas civil rights history by adding bronze markers to the sidewalk in a public ceremony each year to recognize individuals in the state who have made a difference. The trail will eventually lead all the way down to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum (1200 President Clinton Ave.). The Clinton Library contains permanent and traveling exhibits related to civil rights.
Each place in Arkansas has its own civil rights history. The above suggestions only begin to scratch the surface of what is out there. Visit those places, and then begin to discover the civil rights stories in your own community—you may be surprised at just how many you find!