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Context required in Fulbright debate

Former senator’s entire record must be part of the discussion Hoyt Purvis by Hoyt Purvis | July 22, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

Lack of context and perspective often results in incomplete or distorted understanding of history.

Actions don’t occur in a vacuum.

Recent weeks have brought to the public agenda support for removing names applied to buildings, programs or statues intended to honor or memorialize significant public figures or causes.

Those advocating change have a just and legitimate cause, many having been subjected to a long history of injustice, discrimination and unequal opportunities.

There is pressure to remove names from education structures and programs, including at the University of Arkansas. Among the names receiving attention is former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright. Fulbright was founder and chief proponent of the highly successful international educational exchange program which came to bear his name. More than 390,000 “Fulbrighters” have participated in the program that began in 1946. Numerous Fulbright alumni have won prestigious awards or held leadership positions in their countries.

The metrics are impressive, but it is the individuals of all nationalities, races, and skin colors; the informal networks that develop; the multiplier effect; the cross-disciplinary and intercultural understanding that are distinctive features of the program. Should we try a semicolon after colors, develop and effect?

Fulbright was lead sponsor of legislation establishing Arkansas’ treasured Buffalo River as the first National River. He brought funding for education and transportation to the state. These diverse areas demonstrate that Fulbright was hardly a “Johnny one-note.”

He used his post as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman to raise questions about Vietnam. I joined Fulbright’s staff in Washington during that era as his first (and only) press secretary. Later, I was appointed by President Clinton to the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, which oversees the worldwide exchange program.

Civil rights and the U.S. role in Vietnam were defining issues. What Fulbright did on Vietnam and foreign policy was highly important and praiseworthy, and what he didn’t do on civil rights was seen as diminishing his overall record. (It should be noted that Fulbright and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had some similar views and concerns about the U.S. and Vietnam.)

Some argue Fulbright could have voted for civil rights bills and survived politically. The context strongly suggests otherwise, particularly during the years Orval Faubus was Arkansas governor.

Fulbright stood up to the bullying Sen. Joe McCarthy; sponsored legislation creating the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; obtained federal funding for water and sewer systems for rural and low-income communities in Arkansas. He was a force in supporting education and economic development. Fulbright used his post as Foreign Relations Committee chairman to conduct nationally televised hearings. As a member of Fulbright’s staff, I had a closeup view.

Later, after I was appointed to the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, I observed its extraordinary impact around the world. My appointment by President Clinton was especially fitting, as we first met while working on Fulbright’s Senate staff. After becoming president, Clinton presented Fulbright with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

That brings us back to some context and perspective about me. My first teaching job was teaching journalism in Nairobi, Kenya. Among my first journalistic experiences was with the Southern Education Reporting Service in Nashville, reporting on and analyzing school desegregation and the civil rights movement. I wrote my master’s thesis at the University of Texas on “Little Rock and the Press,” examining the media role in the 1957 Little Rock school integration crisis.

Fulbright played football for Arkansas in the 1920s, an obviously segregated time. As late as the 1969 “Great Shootout” Arkansas-Texas game for the national championship, both teams were totally segregated. Julius Whittier, who died recently, was the first Black football player at Texas, a member of the 1970 team and a student in one of my classes at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT.

As a life-long baseball fan, I developed a strong interest in Jackie Robinson and his breaking of the racial barrier. This represented a significant chapter in our history. It led me to serve as the content consultant for a series of books for young readers on Robinson as a player and historic figure. And to make sure each of my four grandchildren has the book and knows the Robinson story.

Those events provide some context and perspective, and personal experiences shaping my perceptions. A questioner could ask why Fulbright is singled out when he was among many state and regional colleagues who have voted or taken actions similarly.

I don’t claim to be an important factor in societal desegregation — or any kind of factor. However, from a young age, I made efforts to help advance civil rights and desegregation. Let me mention a few specifics. With recent focus on whether there will be intercollegiate football this season, I am reminded of the prolonged efforts involved in integrating sports, as well as education. In 1961, as editor of the student newspaper at Texas, I campaigned editorially for desegregating sports and campus facilities. In a referendum, students voted overwhelmingly for desegregation, but the Board of Regents announced there would be no change in policy.

In my early days of political involvement in 1952, I served as chairman of “Youth for Cherry,” working on Francis Cherry’s campaign for governor. Cherry was a neighbor and family friend in my hometown of Jonesboro. Happily, he won that ’52 election in a major upset. In 1954, however, Cherry was upset by Orval Faubus. And here’s where context and perspective become important. Cherry, asked about the Brown v. Board of Education decision ordering school desegregation, said the people of Arkansas had always obeyed the law and would continue to do so. Clearly, however, that’s not what happened.

After defeating Cherry, Faubus tightened his segregationist grip. Reelected five times, he remained invincible. Those who suggested Faubus could be defeated during that period ignored political reality. What happened to Rep. Brooks Hays is especially instructive. Hays, also president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was sailing toward another congressional term in 1958. Considered a southern moderate, he attempted to mediate between Faubus and President Eisenhower on the Little Rock crisis. However, he was branded as an integrationist, out of step with the people of Arkansas. Hays drew a last-minute opponent, Dr. Dale Alford, a member of the Little Rock school board. Some tricky legal maneuvers enabled him to be a “stick-in” candidate. Voters were allowed to vote by applying a sticker to their ballot, and Alford won rather easily.

Biographer Roy Reed said Faubus “amassed enormous political power in his state” — perhaps more than any American governor other than Huey Long of Louisiana.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Fulbright began casting Senate votes that could be considered pro-civil rights. In 1968, with Faubus on the sidelines, arch-segregationist George Wallace of Alabama won the presidential race in Arkansas, ahead of Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Fulbright won Senate reelection over Republican Charles Bernard.

My purpose isn’t to defend every action by Fulbright, but to provide context and perspective that help explain the realities of the time. If there is action on statues or changing the name of Fulbright College, I would hope it would be based on knowledge and understanding of relevant information.

Fulbright became my friend, someone I greatly admired and respected — certainly not without flaws, but someone who contributed significantly to society. I spent a lot of time with him. I never remotely considered him to be a racist.


Hoyt Purvis is an emeritus professor of journalism and international relations at the University of Arkansas. Email him at [email protected] .

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