Say McIntosh: The lion in winter

Robert "Say" McIntosh is older, quieter and calmer these days, but he's lived a life full of personal and political drama.

| October 05, 2011

Robert "Say" McIntosh is not the man he once was.

At 67 years old, he shuffles now. His hands shake. When you ask him a question, it takes him awhile to formulate an answer, and when that answer comes, it's usually a gravelly exclamation of only a sentence or two, as if each thought is a keg of nails he has to physically lift over his lips and teeth. This, from the man who once openly taunted bigots, black icons, mayors, governors, senators and a man who would become president.

For those reading this who aren't old enough or long enough in Little Rock to remember Say McIntosh as the professional provocateur whose name and politically-fueled media events were in the newspaper or on TV on almost a weekly basis in the 1980s and early 1990s, it's hard to fathom just how deep the feelings about him ran in this town once. Who McIntosh is depends on who you ask about him. To some, he was a civil rights leader. For others: A hero. A blowhard. A lunatic. A champion. A character. A villain. A violent man. A philanthropist. An opportunist. A shill. A pioneer. An attention junkie, drawn to the TV cameras as a moth is to a flame.

Funny thing is, he's probably all that — or, at least, he once was. People are rarely simple enough to be accurately boiled down in the newspaper. McIntosh definitely isn't. Given that the thread of his life is woven through two or three decades of Little Rock history, though, it's probably important to try.

Time may cause all things to pass away, but the frustration that McIntosh could incite in his prime tends to linger. There are undoubtedly still old grayheads in this town who will see his face on the cover of this paper and wad it up in disgust. One thing is for sure, though: He's the kind of guy who would take that as a compliment.    

It probably says a lot about McIntosh — the real McIntosh, not the media reflection he crafted — that the first mention of him to be found in the old back-issues of the Arkansas Gazette is a story about him donating his time, resources and energy so hungry people could eat.

McIntosh, who moved from Osceola — first to Woodson, then to Granite Mountain —with his family when he was 6 years old, spent much of his life involved in the restaurant business as a 9-to-5 job, starting work as a waiter at Franke's Cafeteria downtown when he was a teen-ager. He eventually owned a series of restaurants in the black community, where he served up barbecue, plate lunches and his locally-famous sweet potato pie — earning him the possibly self-bestowed title of "The Sweet Potato Pie King" of Little Rock. One reason why those restaurants never tended to last long-term is foreshadowed in the Gazette's Nov. 25, 1976, story about McIntosh preparing a free Thanksgiving dinner for 500 impoverished Little Rock residents at the first incarnation of his restaurant at High Street (now Martin Luther King) and Wright Avenue. As his friends will tell you, he has always been generous to a fault, and was usually broke because he gave away everything he had, including paying for at least part of the dozens of bikes, dolls and other toys he handed out to poor children every year at Christmastime as Little Rock's premier black Santa Claus.

In the Gazette story, McIntosh said he was proud of what he was doing. "We're really having a good time," he said. "This is the way I like to live." That same year, Gov. David Pryor declared Christmas Eve "Say McIntosh Day." Pryor wound up presenting the signed proclamation to a roomful of reporters without the guest of honor because he couldn't find McIntosh — who was, it turned out, at the Arkansas Baptist College gym arranging toys for that day's giveaway to needy children.

 A Say McIntosh flyer retrospective

Flyers courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

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- Brian Chilson
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- Brian Chilson

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Comments (11)

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Little Rock's most genuine public character. Dare I say we could use a few more like him?

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Posted by reimaginethis on 10/04/2011 at 10:20 PM

Very good article, David. A+

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Posted by co led on 10/05/2011 at 7:13 AM

Such a sad shame that you had to waste your time, effort and space on this TURD for this article. Say was a bully in every sense of the word. Nobody liked or likes him. Shame on you Arkansas Times for trying to give him some credibility.

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Posted by Orville Fulbright on 10/06/2011 at 1:25 PM

Dear Orville Fulbright,
Do me a favor and jump off the bridge and die! What have you done besides hide behind your computer and talk crap about someone or something you clearly don't know about. Are you or your parents those idiots who he had to check because of some ignorant comment you made back in the day, but you were too scared to respond so you hide behind your keyboard playing tough now. One thing we do know is you can't and won't walk a mile in his shoes if you tried, truth being your post in comments is the only way for you to get in the Arkansas Times! Congratulations you made it on the website. My family loves, your type you're our motivators!

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Posted by a rare jewel on 10/07/2011 at 12:02 AM

Enjoyed the article and some light shed on Say's actions and the motivations behind them. As a white person, I think it's important for me to listen to what black folks have to say. I may not agree, but it doesn't hurt to listen and try to understand another viewpoint. As for the sweet potato pie, Say's was the first I ever tried when I lived in LR. I make the pie all the time now and can't understand why anyone would choose pumpkin over sweet potatoe pie; my version is really good and people beg me for it, but it isn't the same as Say's. Wonder if he put a bit of lemon in his? I'll probably never know.

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Posted by Bendito on 10/08/2011 at 8:16 PM

Enjoyed the article and some light shed on Say's actions and the motivations behind them. As a white person, I think it's important for me to listen to what black folks have to say. I may not agree, but it doesn't hurt to listen and try to understand another viewpoint. As for the sweet potato pie, Say's was the first I ever tried when I lived in LR. I make the pie all the time now and can't understand why anyone would choose pumpkin over sweet potatoe pie; my version is really good and people beg me for it, but it isn't the same as Say's. Wonder if he put a bit of lemon in his? I'll probably never know.

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Posted by Bendito on 10/08/2011 at 8:16 PM

My only experience with McIntosh was at Mann Middle School. I picked up my daughter, But the line of cars couldn't move because McIntosh's vehicle was blocking both lanes. He just set there, paying no attention to the line of cars ready to go. This happened after he had turned over Lee Munson's desk, so knowing he could be erratic, I didn't walk up and ask him to move. Finally a woman did and he slowly pulled out of the way. I thought he was a jerk, at least his pies were tasty.

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Posted by HillcrestArky on 10/09/2011 at 3:21 AM

A Rare Jewel,
You apparently think highly of this Turd! So we now have two Turds that think highly of this man. Say and You. I love your comment about me being someone he "had to check" back in the day. This Turd would not have ever checked me, because Say the Turd picked on folks he knew would not strike back. I would have kicked the Turd's ass if he had tried to check me. In the end he did get his ass kicked. Say is a nobody, he was a loud mouth, Turd. He's a broke ass Turd. He tried to redeem himself by doing the black santa, but some times nomatter how much good you try to do, folks always remember you for being the TURD that you were in the past. Your name make me think that you are probably a member of the Jerry Jewell family. Another Turd that pardoned one Say the Turds sorry sons.

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Posted by Orville Fulbright on 10/09/2011 at 6:28 PM

I will always remember Robert Say' McIntosh, when I was 12 years my friend and I was out shoveling snow one winter. we stop by 'Says' resturant. He put us to work right away. After that day he ask me to come back if I wanted more work. I did. I kept coming back. He always had something for me to do. I remember when I would come to work on the weekends, every weekend. When school was out. I would have a summer job every summer. I work at a few of his resturants. Let me think of the ones I worked at. The first resturant was down on Higt and Wright Ave on the coner. I remember when ' Say' would work have those block dancing for the children right across the street from his resturant. That was alot of fun for the children . I my self were always working. I sure enjoyed for working for 'Say'. I also worked at the used to be theater downtown that Robert had. That was alot of fun too. I also worked at the his resturant up on Ringo across from the YMCA. I work for "Say" many times growing up. I got a chance to meet alot of his family throught out the years. Robert was a blessing to me. He showed me how to work. He was always there for me when I needed a Job. He never turned me down. I want to thank you Robert "Say" McIntosh for being their for me when I needed you the most. Thank you and God Bless You!!!!

Sincerely yours,


Lukecanwill

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Posted by Luke Evans on 07/05/2012 at 7:15 PM

This was a well written piece, captivating and informative about a man with a good heart who wanted to see equality for all people. His desire to empower his community is inspirational and touching! Some like me would say that his methods were brazen and at times justified for the intents and purposes of his vision of a better tomorrow. Others will try to discredit Mr. McIntosh, noting his erratic moments as an overshadowing cloud over his contribution in an attempt to taint a legacy that will obviously sustain in the hearts of those who he has touched. But the fact of the matter and one that cannot be disputed is that he is a true fighter of rights and a jewel to the whole Arkansas community and communities of America who suffer by the same oppressive practices of the political establishment who seek to keep our children uneducated and dependant. I feel blessed to know at least part of the story of the man they call "Say" as he is an integral part of American history for reasons most people will never know or make the connections to. I was born and raised in Detroit, Mi and right now Detroit could use about ten Mr. McIntosh's. Those who took advantage of his passion for selfish purposes ultimately contributing to the unwarranted reputation as some media whore are the kind of cowards who become successful and shut the door on the poor and black communities and contribute to the lack of opportunities and disenfranchisement of God's people. Nevertheless, thank you for this article and God bless Mr. Say McIntosh for all his works and to the family as well. Keep pushing!

Dee F...

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Posted by Johnsinoda79 on 02/26/2013 at 12:53 AM

Not mentioned here--but when Say was arrested and taken to jail after he bought a ticket to a GWBush event, that was an insult to all fair minded people. It still angers me when I think of it.

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Posted by Verla Sweere on 06/19/2013 at 9:17 AM
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