Columns » John Brummett

50 years after Charleston’s non-crisis

In late August of 1954, Charleston quietly admitted 11 black children throughout all grades and made Arkansas history.

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Charleston wasn’t nearly as big a story as Little Rock, but it was a much better one.

Sunday’s commemoration in Doll Means Auditorium at the local middle school won’t be remotely as lavish as Little Rock’s this fall. No current or former president will attend. But the man once voted the best orator in the Senate, a man who perhaps should have been president, will deliver a surely worthy keynote address. Dale Bumpers, now 81, will know whereof he speaks.

This hamlet in Franklin County of western Arkansas is best known for turning out Bumpers. And that’s perhaps as it should be. It was Bumpers, then not quite 30 and the one lawyer in his one-lawyer hometown, who provided integral legal advice by which Charleston became the first school in Arkansas to obey Brown v. Board of Education and integrate racially.

“All deliberate speed” meant what it said, Bumpers remembers telling school officials. He also recalls advising that the district could save the $3,000 it was spending to operate the one-room school house for black students and another $3,000 to bus black high school kids to a black high school in Fort Smith.

On that night in July 1954 when Charleston’s School Board voted to integrate that very fall, Bumpers started the meeting as the board’s attorney and ended it as a member. It turned out that A.R. Schaffer, married to the sister of Bumpers’ wife, Betty, was leaving the board to go to Korea. Bumpers got chosen to succeed him.

In late August of that year, Charleston quietly admitted 11 black children throughout all grades and made Arkansas history. Three weeks later, Fayetteville opened school and integrated its high school.

Charleston’s superintendent, Woodrow Haynes, had decided to remain quiet about the integration to head off trouble, and had persuaded everyone in town to do the same. When a couple of out-of-town reporters called him about plans to integrate, he simply denied any such thing. Then, to set the record straight after Fayetteville’s action, Charleston let everyone know it had integrated three weeks before.

“It was really a remarkable thing,” Bumpers said by phone Monday from his Washington office. “What made it really remarkable was that it was almost routine. I know we had to have some diehard segregationists. But no more than one or two people raised their voices.”

Somebody did paint a racist message on school property one night. Bumpers’ advice was to get it painted over by sunup. The next morning, he sat in his car at the school to see if those he believed to be the perpetrators would drive by to examine their handiwork, only to find it gone. Indeed, those he suspected rolled slowly by in a car before buses began arriving. Bumpers liked the symbolism: Hatred came in darkness, but was erased by the dawn.

In 1957, some folks in Charleston got inspired by the demagoguery of Orval Faubus and the debacle in Little Rock. Segregationists ran to oust Bumpers and another moderate from the school board. A black man, Joe Ferguson, came to Bumpers to report that he and his family were being terrorized. Bumpers followed him home and parked his distinctive car, a 1954 Pontiac, out front. Trouble-makers came back, saw the car, piped down, left and didn’t come back. Bumpers and the other moderate got re-elected by substantial margins.

More than 40 years later, Bumpers was in the U.S. Senate and interested in getting Charleston’s historic role noted in some official way. The National Park Service wouldn’t grant national park status, but did approve Charleston for secondary “commemorative” status. Bumpers secured $200,000 for a marker.

Today the monument will be formally dedicated, the misspelling of Schaffer having been corrected. Bumpers will return to speak in that Doll Means Auditorium, named for what he calls “the best English teacher in the world,” and the second person, after his dad, he went to see after getting back from Marine service in World War II.

“You know, you have to be careful not to embellish such things,” he said. It sounds as if he needn’t.

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