By Joe David Rice
To the best of my knowledge, only one person has publicly performed the hoochie-coochie within the hallowed halls of the U.S. House of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol. That unlikely dancer was ultra-conservative Congressman Ezekiel Candler “Took” Gathings, a devout Baptist who represented Arkansas’ First Congressional District for 30 years.
But first, an explanation of his unusual nickname. As a baby, his parents called him “Sugar,” a word which gave his two-year-old brother considerable trouble and came out as “Tooker.” Soon shortened to “Took,” it replaced his given name and was used by friends and foes alike.
After a brief stint in the Arkansas Senate, Gathings won his congressional seat in the general election of 1938. Serving for 15 terms, he assumed office in January, 1939, and held the position until retiring three decades later. Gathings was a typical southern Democrat of the time, looking after the agricultural interests of his northeast Arkansas constituents and backing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. A pro-segregationist, he favored the poll tax, voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and opposed a universal health care program (although he supported legislation establishing Medicare).
True to his Bible Belt background, Gathings was bothered by what he considered undue prominence given to sex and violence by the broadcast industry. His concern led to sponsorship of HR 278, a 1951 resolution calling for an investigation “to determine the extent to which radio and television programs currently available to the people of the United States contain immoral or otherwise offensive matter, or place improper emphasis upon crime, violence, and corruption.” Chaired by Congressman Oren Harris, a fellow Arkansan, the subcommittee charged with examining offensive and undesirable radio and television shows held a memorable public hearing on June 3, 1952.
Among those testifying was Congressman Gathings, and he shared his critique of a recent episode of You Asked for It, a popular television show where viewers submitted requests for unusual performances:
It had a grass-skirted young lady and a thinly clad gentleman dancing the hoochie-coochie. They danced to a very lively tune and shook the shimmy, both of them, and it wound up by the very attractive young lady shaking down all of the way back to the floor, landing on her hands back on the floor, with the gentleman standing close by. My children saw that, and I could not get it turned off to save my life. I tried.
But there was more to come. Apparently feeling an obligation to reenact the visual effect of what he’d seen, Gathings “raised his arms above his head, shook his hands and wiggled his fingers as he reared far back in his chair with a ‘bump’ to describe the finale of the act.” While the display stunned and startled his congressional colleagues, that wasn’t the end of it. Following the hearing, Gathings stood and repeated his hoochie-coochie moves for the benefit of photographers. Newspapers from coast to coast printed images of the grinning Arkansas congressman demonstrating the dance. So did Newsweek and Life magazines. Naturally, critics and columnists had a field day at Gathings’ expense.
But Congressman Gathings wasn’t done. He’d also complained about what he viewed as an explosion of obscene printed materials, particularly the lurid paperback books he spotted in drugstores and newsstands while walking to his office in the Capitol. “I thought, what is this country coming to if we are distributing this type of thing to the youth of the land?” he asked. “Then, to follow it through, these kids seem to have the idea that one must go out and commit rape.” He asked for another congressional investigation.
Sam Rayburn, the legendary Speaker of the House, appointed an eight-member House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials, arranged a $25,000 budget to cover its expense, and appointed Gathings to serve as chairman. An hour and a half after its formation on June 16, 1952, the committee followed Congressman Gathings to his suite in Room 1035 of the Longworth House Office Building. Getting right to work, he showed his colleagues a hundred or so questionable books and other allegedly scurrilous items he’d collected and locked away in a walnut cabinet. The committee initiated a series of closed-door sessions and then hired a staff of lawyers and investigators to examine “immoral, obscene, or otherwise offensive matter” in magazines and books.
Gathings had a definite agenda going into his review. He felt that comic books posed a legitimate threat to the youth of America, encouraging juvenile delinquency. Likewise, he was of the opinion that paperbacks with their titillating covers were also a corrupting influence, perhaps leading to sexual perversions and narcotics. He also claimed 10 percent of the country’s adult male population read “girlie” magazines every month. Even if communists weren’t directly behind these publications, Gathings was convinced they’d capitalize on the growing weaknesses of American society.
“I’m not a crusader, goodness alive,” Gathings said. “I’m just trying to do something to bring about the wholesome publishing of reading material for our youth.”
Public hearings before the Gathings Committee – as it came to be known – began on December 1, 1952. Thirty days later it submitted a majority report recommending, among other things, the establishment of a federal censorship board. The House of Representatives failed to act on any of the committee’s suggestions.
Ezekiel Candler “Took” Gathings retired from Congress in 1969 and died a decade later in West Memphis. His spontaneous demonstration of the hoochie-coochie has slowly faded from the public memory. We can only wonder how he would have reacted to today’s epidemic of reality television shows.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, the first of which is now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.