One man against the mob

His name was Sam Levine, and old-timers in Arkansas politics—or just history buffs—will remember him as one of the few voices of reason in this state’s legislature back when Orval Faubus’ will was law. Back then massive resistance was the order of the day—well, the cry of the day. It was a time when a “statesman” like J. William Fulbright would leave the state or even the country to avoid the whole issue. And when Senator Fulbright did return, it was only to help frame the notorious Southern Manifesto.

Years ago the Southern Jewish Historical Society was meeting at Hot Springs, Ark., and many of our visitors had never heard of Sam Levine, a man who did Arkansas proud. For that matter, a whole new generation in this state had grown up without many of its members having heard his name, either. So it was a pleasure to introduce all these folks to state Senator Sam Levine, fighter and true statesman. And remind our guests that not all of Arkansas had gone mad during the Great Faubusfear, which lasted beyond the Furious Fifties and well into the Seggish ’60s.

By 1959, Arkansas had reached the point in its rush to the bottom that Governor Orval E. Faubus could shut down the public schoolsand be praised for doing so. To quote one of Sam Levine’s colleagues in the regular session of the General Assembly back in 1959: “Nothing in this bill should be construed to re-open the schools.” And, yes, he meant that as an assurance.

It was left to Sam Levine of Pine Bluff, Ark., to rise up and warn his fellow members of the state Senate: “In the past, this body has laid stress on mediocrity. Let’s put the emphasis on excellence and superiority . . . .” His was a battle that is still going on in Arkansas, as anybody who follows state news will recognize.

Of course Sen. Levine was ignored—as any legislator might be today if speaking in favor of clear standards in education instead of vague ones, or charter schools instead of the kind that hold our poorest kids hostage in our worst public schools.

Back in 1959, Governor Orval E. Faubus had made the name Little Rock infamous by exploiting the crisis over the racial integration of Central High School. Now he was trying to pack Little Rock’s school board. At the time, the board was divided between three fire-eating segs and three others who respected the law. The latter even dared suggest that public schools should remain open to the public.

The stage was set for Sam Levine’s finest hour, which was also his swan song in Arkansas politics. He knew what it would mean to oppose Orval Faubus on this issue. For to take a stand on behalf of public education back then meant the end of whatever political career he might have aspired to.

Sam Levine also knew what he had to do: Defend the law, keep the schools open, and, like the good lawyer he was, make a record for that ultimate court of appeals called Posterity. His would be an almost lone voice of reason at a time when passion prevailed. But he was determined to speak out. At length. He launched a filibuster against the bill to pack Little Rock’s school board at 11:24 a.m. on the last day of the legislative session and would proceed to run the clock out. For he knew a major highway bill was backed up behind him, and that if he talked long enough, the school bill would be shelved to make way for it. Which is just what happened. But first he had to talk, talk, talk. He would make his last speech as a legislator his longest.

The Ledge, as we called it in Arkansas, always goes a little crazy at the end of a session, but here was a scene crazier than usual: A lone senator stood speaking for sanity while others all around him jeered him—or just snubbed him. To quote the Associated Press dispatch: “His colleagues ignored him while drinking soft drinks, munching sandwiches, reading magazines and smoking cigarettes.” Some offered him comic books to read into the record, and one legislator played a harmonica in his face. But nothing fazed Sam Levine.

Mister Sam continued speaking, calmly, formally, politely. As he always did. When he spoke, invariably it was in complete sentences; you could almost hear the commas and periods. He could have been walking down old Main Street in Pine Bluff, his Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from his tie pin. (It was the only memorable part of his wardrobe.) His language had a natural courtliness about it, like the man himself. That day he was speaking to the state’s good sense at a time when Arkansas seemed to have abandoned it.

After his filibuster, Sam Levine knew he couldn’t run for the Legislature again, but he did try for the bench the next year. Let it be said for the bar association in his home county that it supported him almost to a man. But the fever of those times had not yet run its course, and he fell short of making the runoff by 10 votes. The morning after the election, Sam Levine picked up his pride and set out to help elect the more sensible of the two candidates who had defeated him.

By the time November and the general election arrived, passions had cooled, and a proposal to strike the requirement for public education from the state constitution went down better than 2 to 1. By the time Mister Sam died four years later, he had acquired the nimbus of a political martyr. Which may be why folks in Pine Bluff were always a little uncomfortable in his presence, as so many of us tend to be around someone who has tried to save us from ourselves. It’s hard to forgive anyone who’s proven right when we were so wrong.

Now, so long after after the crisis that set the stage for his finest hour, Sam Levine’s name is one of the few honored from the bad old days. And it is honored precisely because he didn’t win but lost an election. It is honored because he would not roll over and say what people didn’t want to hear but needed to hear.

Now, when folks interested in history come to Arkansas, the story of Sam Levine should be shared with them. Because a people that remembers its Sam Levines will never settle for mediocrity.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.