Columns » Ernest Dumas

Forrest Rozzell


On the death of Forrest Rozzell, a man of uncommonly liberal spirit, we surely will be pardoned for the Shakespearean drama of observing that the good that men do is often interred with their bones. The trouble with living to the age of 96 is that memories and even the records of your deeds have moldered away and even the daily paper doesn't mark your passing with more than the family notice. So it was with Forrest Rozzell. Rozzell hadn't been heard from in the public prints or airwaves for more than 25 years, but in the previous quarter-century, roughly the period that he headed what would be dismissively referred to as "the teacher's union," his was the voice that was always heard at the moment when the rest fell mute. In 1956, when the assembling terrorists from around the South were trying to force four members of the school board at little Hoxie, Ark., to reverse their decision to integrate classes, the executive secretary of the Arkansas Education Association broke the silence that thundered across the state. He said the board had taken the moral path and deserved the support of the state. The board members took the threats and the brickbats and stood their ground. Hoxie was the first battleground of school desegregation in the South where law prevailed. On Sept. 24, 1957, the day after a mob encouraged by Gov. Orval E. Faubus' defiance of court orders to desegregate Little Rock schools rampaged around Central High School, Rozzell was to make a speech to the Greater Little Rock Federation of Women's Clubs on the status of education. Instead, the women got a lecture on the American heritage. If you believe in the principles of that heritage - faith in human dignity and equality of opportunity - now is the time, Rozzell declared, his deep voice literally quavering with rage, to show it by example. "We solve our problems in this country through an umpire, an impartial umpire called the law and the institutions which have been created by the law. . .We have developed a system where the law is the final sanction and we accept its mandate." "Shall I, in this time of crisis negate all of this? When there is a wild resort to jungle rule before the eyes of my daughter, a senior at Central High School, shall I dare not raise my voice again to insist that man must rely upon intelligence and cooperation rather than upon force and violence? How can I as a responsibly intelligent citizen dedicated to the perpetuation of the American heritage, appear before you this afternoon and talk on the subject of public education and refuse to take cognizance of the situation that prevails at Central High School without giving a lie to everything I stand for? I cannot and I shall not." The papers reported that the club then discussed the approaching style show. As far back as the 1950s, in the middle of a 39-year career with the AEA, Rozzell was something of an intellectual nag, often criticized for badmouthing the state. In a widely reported speech in 1965, he said the Land of Opportunity was really the Land of Unrealized Opportunity, where leaders had a passion for conformity, orthodoxy and the security of the status quo. It was about that time that Rozzell, a lawyer and former teacher, recruited a biology teacher at Central High School named Susan B. Epperson to join him in suing the state to strike down the 1928 law that made it a criminal act to teach evolution. Pulaski Chancellor Murray O. Reed declared the law unconstitutional, but in one of its most shameful acts the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the law, 6 to 1. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck it down. But he was more than a public scold. For 30 years, starting when he went to work for the AEA in 1939 as field director, Rozzell was an architect of almost every public policy that elevated education, including the initiated act of 1948 that reduced the number of school districts from 2,179 to fewer than 450 and gave every child access for the first time to a high school education and two other consolidation proposals that would have further reduced districts. The last failure, in 1966, led to the Quality Education Act, which brought more consolidation and forced hundreds of schools to improve their curricula. In 1956, he connived with Josh Shepherd, an insurance man, and Hugh B. Patterson Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, to persuade Gov. Faubus, who was then on friendly terms, to push through what is still the largest tax program in the state's history to raise the pay of teachers and expand educational opportunities. The deal was that they had to first go across the state and sell the idea, and they did. The legislature raised the sales tax, and adjusted the income and severance taxes to produce more revenue. He took the state's failures personally. When Arkansas refused to tax its natural gas, much of which went to other states, to pay for education Rozzell sued the state of Oklahoma to block a whopping 7 percent severance tax on gas there from being passed on to Arkansas residents because the tax interfered with interstate commerce. Arkansans were paying for a good public retirement system in Oklahoma, and still are.

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