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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Arkansas politics not as much fun as they used to be

by Tom Dillard | December 13, 2020 at 9:17 a.m.

The level of political discourse seems awfully low during this election season. It is easy to forget that Arkansas has always had an abundance of over-the-edge political leaders. During the territorial days, 1819-1836, public officials in Arkansas were nothing if not fiercely partisan.

Libelous letters to the editor commonly littered the pages of the newspapers, all of which were brazenly partisan. To be a politician in frontier Arkansas was a dangerous occupation since duels and other violence were a common threat.

Two judges on the Territorial Superior Court, Andrew Scott and Joseph Selden, met on the "field of honor" on May 26, 1824, with Judge Selden being killed.

Dueling was illegal, but since most duelists were prominent politicians, prosecutions were infrequent, and convictions even more so. Politicians engaged in other crimes too. In 1842 Little Rock mayor Samuel G. Trowbridge was arrested for counterfeiting.

One of the most unusual political leaders during the era after the Civil War was William Hines Furbush, a Black soldier, photographer, emigrant to Liberia, state legislator and the first sheriff of Lee County. While in the Legislature, Furbush sponsored legislation to create a new county from western Phillips County, which ultimately created Lee County, ironically enough named for Confederate military commander Robert E. Lee.

In one 1873 confrontation in the State House, Furbush got into a fight with a member of the state Supreme Court. He was known for disrupting legislative proceedings. In one instance, Furbush climbed on top of his desk and raised a point of order. Furbush ultimately switched to the Democratic Party, one of the few Blacks to hold office as a Democrat in 19th-century Arkansas.

Undoubtedly, one of the most unusual politicians of the 20th century was James "Uncle Mac" MacKrell. A Texan by birth, MacKrell was a Methodist minister until 1929, when he moved to Fayetteville to become manager of the University of Arkansas radio station. He later gained fame for reading the Sunday comics pages over the air.

MacKrell ran for governor in 1948 and was defeated by World War II hero Sidney S. McMath. Traveling with a gospel quartet in which he sang bass, MacKrell's rallies were spectacles.

Tall and thin, Uncle Mac made a habit of pacing the stage while reading the Ten Commandments and occasionally praising the virtues of Blair's Best Flour, which he sold on the side. MacKrell ran for lieutenant governor in 1950, coming in behind Nathan Gordon, and in 1970, shortly before his death, mounted a quixotic campaign against incumbent Republican governor Winthrop Rockefeller in 1970.

State Sen. Guy H. "Mutt" Jones of Conway was probably the most colorful character to serve in the modern Arkansas legislature. Journalist Ernest Dumas described Jones in a 1971 article as "easily the noisiest, newsiest, most ferocious, entertaining and controversial man in the Legislature."

Standing only a little over 5 feet in height, Jones more than compensated for his diminutive stature by making rousing speeches, sometimes standing on his desk to be seen. Jones did not hesitate to bend the rules, which worked well for him until he was convicted of income tax evasion.

Conway County sheriff Marlin Hawkins was perhaps even more controversial than Senator Jones. Hawkins, who grew up as a sharecropper's son and always had a soft spot for the poor, served as sheriff from 1951 to 1978. Though popular with the electorate, Hawkins was never far from controversy. He was an arch-enemy of Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, who was also a Conway County resident.

In his later years, Hawkins published his memoirs, titled "How I Stole Elections." Hawkins' autobiography is amazing for its unvarnished and often accusatory style. Despite the book's title, Hawkins claimed he never stole votes, relying on dedicated constituent service to build a powerful following.

Still, in 1992 a cache of 200 marked ballots from the 1968 primaries was found in the former home of a Hawkins deputy sheriff. Hawkins denied any knowledge of the purloined ballots, but he said the controversy ought to help his book sales.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published May 2, 2010.


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