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It was 1954, and Arkansans were desperate. With tens of thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers losing their jobs due to the rapid mechanization of agriculture, the state was bleeding population. Arkansas would end up losing 163,000 residents from 1940-60, the largest population decrease on a percentage basis for any state in the country.

Arkansas voters were in the habit of re-electing governors to second two-year terms if they thought those governors were doing well. Gov. Francis Cherry never received that second term. Voters were so concerned about the population losses that they answered the siren song of a populist from the Ozarks named Orval Faubus.

Faubus had been born in January 1910 in a log cabin on Greasy Creek in Madison County. His father Sam was a socialist who gave Orval the middle name of Eugene in honor of socialist leader Eugene Debs. It was Sam Faubus who urged Orval to attend Commonwealth College, a left-wing institution near Mena. Orval and his wife Alta later bought the Madison County Record at Huntsville. His progressive editorials were read by Sid McMath, who served as governor from 1949-53. McMath appointed Faubus to the Arkansas Highway Commission and later hired him as an administrative assistant.

"Faubus proved himself as a campaigner, attacking electric utility interests and Cherry's political awkwardness," late journalist Roy Reed wrote of the 1954 campaign for the Democratic nomination. "He stood up for old people on welfare, throwing Cherry's unfortunate remarks about 'welfare chiselers' and 'deadheads' in his face. Cherry panicked. When his advisers dug up Faubus' connection with Commonwealth College, Cherry made it public in a way that suggested his opponent might be a communist. The tactic backfired. Faubus defeated Cherry by almost 7,000 votes. In the general election in November, he defeated Little Rock's Republican mayor, Pratt Remmel, in a landslide."

Faubus took office in January 1955. He viewed industrialization as a way of replacing lost farm jobs. One of the first bills he pushed through the Legislature in 1955 created the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission). Faubus then talked Winthrop Rockefeller, who had moved to the state two years earlier, into serving as its chairman. The Rockefeller name ensured the chairman's phone calls to business executives across the country would be answered. Faubus and Rockefeller achieved early success as they attracted manufacturing facilities to towns across the state. Many were cut-and-sew operations and shoe factories. Faubus thus burnished his populist credentials.

"Arkansas steadily industrialized during Faubus' years as governor," Reed wrote. "Seizing on the new prosperity, he oversaw numerous improvements in public education, including a large increase in teachers' pay. He initiated an overhaul of the embarrassingly bad Arkansas State Hospital for the mentally ill; built the state's first institution for underdeveloped children, the Arkansas Children's Colony; expanded state parks; and forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to abandon plans to dam the Buffalo River. Hundreds of miles of highways were paved."

Arkansas voters gave Faubus the traditional second term in 1956. He decided by 1957 that two terms weren't enough. Faubus enjoyed being governor more than being a rural newspaperman. To be elected to a third term meant that he would have to block the Little Rock School Board's plan to desegregate Central High School. Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard on Sept. 2, 1957. He claimed that his goal was to prevent violence.

Faubus told Arkansans: "There is evidence of disorder and threats of disorder which could have but one inevitable result--that is violence, which can lead to injury and the doing of harm to persons and property."

Faubus wasn't an outspoken racist in the mold of many Southern demagogues of the era. He was more complex than that.

"He calculated, however, that a moderate would stand small chance of re-election in 1958 against a determined white supremacist," Reed later wrote. "Catering to the clamors of white supremacists seemed out of character for Faubus, a figure of pronounced country dignity and unusual public reserve. His personal convictions at the time were not virulently racist; indeed, his administration had favored the black minority in several instances. For example, he hired a number of black people in state government and saw to it that historically black colleges and other institutions received financial support. He joined a fight to abolish the discriminatory poll tax and replace it with a modern voter registration system. And the voters who repeatedly returned him to office were apparently driven by something more than the obvious motive of racism. They seemed in part to be applauding their governor for standing up to an all-powerful federal government."

The Little Rock Central desegregation crisis would become the biggest news story in the world in the fall of 1957. Economic development in Arkansas was set back years due to the negative publicity. Faubus was re-elected in 1958, '60, '62 and '64. In the previous two columns, we traced a series of natural and man-made disasters dating back to the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12. The choices Faubus made in 1957 led to the next man-made disaster. Arkansas finally began to turn things around in the 1960s. In Sunday's column, I'll list the four main parts of the great Arkansas turnaround.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 01/12/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: A man-made disaster

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