By Ernest Dumas
Would it be wonderful if the scene in the South Carolina legislature—a Republican descendant of Jefferson Davis tearfully begging colleagues to repudiate the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of bigotry—proved to be prophetic: that old Henry Grady’s new South was arriving at last and old racial stereotypes and fears were fading way?
It will take more than symbolic steps like removing from government ground the flag and other tokens of that ancient treason, but all those remarkable events of the past three weeks may indicate that the sea change has picked up a little momentum.
What is important is not the lopsided votes in the South Carolina legislature or the acts of removing flags and monuments but the acknowledgment by political leaders like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Alabama’s right-wing governor and the mayor of New Orleans that those symbols were not celebrations of “Southern heritage” or the essential goodness of Confederate leaders but of the cause for which they stood, which was to prevent citizenship and then equality for black people.
In Arkansas, we have not officially honored the flag but we celebrate the birthday of Gen. Robert E. Lee and counties and streets are named after Confederates, including the dastardly Nathan Bedford Forrest.
But this is about Lee, a good person by everyone’s account, a reluctant secessionist who quietly grieved about slavery and who commanded the revolution against his country because he would have had to kill Virginians rather than Vermonters if he had joined the forces of the USA. Since 1947, by an act of the Arkansas legislature, Lee’s birthday has been celebrated as an official state holiday. As a token of appeasement when we gave Rev. Martin Luther King a holiday, the two men since 1985 have shared a holiday so that people can feel like they are honoring one man or the other without feeling too much pain about the other’s recognition.
Perish the idea that Lee was honored because he was a kind man who didn’t much like slavery and who after the war urged people to forget the lost cause and consider themselves Americans. It was because he led the struggle to preserve the right of Southern states to keep black people in bondage, which we later translated into preserving white superiority in all things.
Let’s return to those halcyon days when the legislature passed the bill creating a Lee state holiday and it was signed into law by Gov. Ben T. Laney, a leader of the Dixiecrat rebellion against the Democratic Party and Harry S. Truman, who had integrated the armed forces. It was the early stage of the civil rights movement and lots of people were scared. Throughout the Depression, in east and south Arkansas where I lived, there had been rumors of black uprisings.
Homer M. Adkins defeated Gov. Carl Bailey in the Democratic primary in 1940 by advertising a picture of Bailey speaking to a black woman. Adkins, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, bristled throughout the war over Roosevelt’s orders that defense contractors in Arkansas be open to hiring blacks. A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had threatened a march on Washington if the government did not require nondiscriminatory hiring. A Defense Department training program in the construction trades at Little Rock actually took in African Americans over Adkins’ objections.
Arkansas newspapers regularly carried stories of incidents involving uppity black soldiers. When the all-black 94th Engineers Battalion sang as it marched near Gurdon, a state trooper ordered the soldiers to keep quiet in the presence of whites, but the officer of the patrol responded that his men were as good as whites, which earned him a whipping. The black soldiers guarded German and Italian prisoners of war, who could eat in Arkansas cafes while the soldiers could not.
Fears of a race war spread after a Little Rock policeman killed Sgt. Thomas B. Foster, a black soldier with the 92nd Engineers, who had intervened in the beating of a drunk soldier from Camp Robinson on Little Rock’s West Ninth Street. The cops severely beat Foster, too, and, as he lay semiconscious on the steps of a church, policeman Abner J. Hay shot him five times in the head and chest. A grand jury found no wrongdoing. An Arkansas Democrat editorial blamed the sergeant’s murder on the newly emergent NAACP in Arkansas, which was egging blacks on.
The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1941 that states could not differentiate in the pay of white and black teachers. Backed by the NAACP, Susie Cowan Morris, a black English teacher at Little Rock’s Dunbar High School, sued over the huge difference in pay. Little Rock’s white supervisor of teachers testified that “no white primary teacher in Little Rock is inferior to the best Negro teacher.” That satisfied Judge T.C. Trimble, who ruled the big pay difference OK, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it wasn’t. The school district fired Morris.
But the real threat was black voting. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Arkansas and other Southern states could no longer prevent blacks from voting in party primaries.
“The Democratic Party in Arkansas,” Gov. Adkins assured alarmed voters, “is a white man’s party” and would remain so. Adkins and the legislature set up two primaries, so that blacks could only vote in one where the president and congressional representatives were nominated but not in the primary where Arkansas offices would be filled. The Supreme Curt would say, in a South Carolina case, that this also was illegal. Besides, the expense of two primaries in 1946 was too much. The registration campaign of the NAACP had raised the number of black voters in Arkansas from 4,000 in 1940 to 47,000 in 1946, a cause for alarm.
So when the legislature convened in January 1947, it capitulated to the courts and budget restraints and repealed Adkins’s double-primary law. Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia were showing other ways to keep blacks from the polls.
If nothing else the legislators and Gov. Laney could take a symbolic step to show the state’s anger over the repeated loss of the state’s right to discriminate. They passed Act 215 giving General Lee a holiday alongside George Washington, the father of our country.
The day the House was considering the Lee holiday bill, the Arkansas Gazette published an editorial that, avoiding mention of Lee, extolled a worthier honoree, Gen. Patrick Cleburne of Helena, a brilliant general who urged the Confederate president to free the slaves and who, on the morning of his death, gave his boots to a shoeless soldier with bloody feet at Franklin, Tenn., and strode barefoot into battle to take the fatal bullet.
See, it was all about Southern heritage.