Fifty years ago, Little Rock brought to an end its long-standing policy of racial segregation in most downtown public and some private facilities. It eventually did so without the upheaval and conflict experienced in many other Southern cities. In the April 1963 edition of Jet magazine, black reporter John Britton wrote a feature-length story about the city's progress. He quoted James Forman, executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as saying that Little Rock was "just about the most integrated [city] in the south."
The picture was a far cry from September 1957, when the Little Rock school crisis made the city a symbol of racial hatred around the world. Although white businessmen seized control of the Little Rock School Board from segregationists and reopened schools on a token desegregated basis in August 1959, the city had remained in an economic quagmire. Many businesses refused to locate to the city, fearing bad publicity and difficulty in recruiting employees.
Yet white businessmen were slow to grasp the lessons of 1957. While many other chambers of commerce in the South vowed not to become "another Little Rock" and to instead address their racial issues head on, Little Rock leaders initially buried their heads in the sand. As director of industrial development for the city's chamber of commerce Everett Tucker put it, "The best thing for Little Rock to do now is nothing."
Paralyzed by fear of negative publicity should it try to instigate any form of racial change, Little Rock began to fall behind other Southern cities. When the 1960 sit-in movement led by black college students erupted across the South, many upper-South cities took the opportunity to desegregate facilities. Business leaders there argued that segregation was no longer worth the economic disruption caused by black protests. The situation in Little Rock was very different. When black students from Philander Smith College tried to launch a sit-in movement in the city, they met with harsh fines and stiff prison sentences that quickly ground the movement to a halt.
In 1961, the Freedom Rides arrived in Little Rock. The rides had gained national attention earlier that year when, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), groups of interracial riders on interstate buses had met with violent resistance in their attempts to use bus terminals that were under federal court order to desegregate.
Little Rock's Freedom Riders were part of a follow-up campaign of demonstrations across the South. City police arrested the Freedom Riders on arrival. However, they were offered a deal by local Judge Quinn Glover: agree to leave the state and go home and they would be released. When they refused this request, Glover was ready to throw the book at them. Only at that point did city leaders intervene. Again, the fear of negative racial headlines drove their response. Glover recanted and allowed the Freedom Riders to continue their journey out of the state.
Though the Freedom Ride failed to make the desired impact on whites in Little Rock, it did act as a catalyst for action in the black community. Dismayed by the city's response to the sit-ins and embarrassed by the treatment of the Freedom Riders, a young cadre of black medical professionals, Dr. William H. Townsend, Dr. Morris A. Jackson, Dr. Garman P. Freeman and his wife Dr. Evangeline Upshur, decided to act. In the 1960s, their offices on Wright Avenue became the headquarters of a new local civil rights organization, the Council on Community Affairs (COCA).
COCA dedicated itself to providing the type of coordinated black community leadership needed to address the city's continuing segregation. On March 8, 1962, 22 of its members filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city Board of Directors for the desegregation of "public parks, recreational facilities, Joseph T. Robinson Auditorium and all other public facilities." Members of the City Board were willing to admit that the desegregation of public facilities was "a foregone conclusion" if the case went to court, but they remained committed to fighting the lawsuit if only to buy time to devise other methods to avoid desegregation.
In an attempt to inject some urgency into desegregation efforts, the Arkansas Council on Human Relations, an interracial civil rights organization and affiliate of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council, invited SNCC into the state to reinvigorate direct action protests. SNCC sent 23-year-old seasoned activist Bill Hansen to the city to work with Philander Smith students. In late 1962, a new wave of sit-ins began to target segregated lunch counters.
The outbreak of new demonstrations prompted executive director of Downtown Little Rock Limited, Willard A. ("Lefty") Hawkins, to contact Philander Smith student Worth Long. Hawkins informed Long that a group of businessmen had formed a Downtown Negotiating Committee (DNC) headed by James Penick, president of Worthen Bank, and were willing to meet with students. Alongside Penick on the DNC was Little Rock Chamber of Commerce president Will Mitchell, who had been instrumental in organizing the Stop this Outrageous Purge (STOP) campaign to oust segregationists from the Little Rock School Board during the school crisis; Arthur Phillips, president of M.M. Cohn department store, and B. Finley Vinson, president of First National Bank.
Before meeting with students, Penick, a well-respected and powerful figure in the Little Rock business community, met with downtown merchants and professional leaders to pave the way for negotiations. Penick informed them that they now had two choices: risk further demonstrations and continued disruption of downtown businesses or end segregation. During the first two weeks of November 1962, a delegation from the black community composed of two Philander Smith students, Worth Long and Bert Strauss, and two COCA representatives, Rev. Negail Riley and Ozell Sutton, met with the DNC to discuss desegregation. Although both sides agreed that segregation should end, talks stalled over the timing. The black delegation pressed for change within a matter of weeks, while whites talked about gradual desegregation over a number of years.
Disillusioned with the results of the negotiations, students expanded sit-in demonstrations to Walgreens, McLellan's and Blass stores. At Walgreens, when Hansen and Long requested service at the lunch counter the manager shut it down. When they refused to leave, he called the police and had them arrested. More than 100 Philander Smith students marched downtown the following day. COCA provided the $1,000 bond money for the release of Hansen and Long.
The new demonstrations brought the city's businessmen back to the negotiating table. Fearing the negative publicity of escalating protests and a prolonged battle over desegregation, they made a decision to broker a compromise. Eventually, after further haggling, they reached an agreement with black representatives to desegregate downtown lunch counters in early 1963.
James Penick took charge of the operation. He first approached the store manager at Woolworths and explained that the DNC had reached an agreement with students to desegregate lunch counters in return for an end to demonstrations. The manager at Woolworths agreed to go along with the plan if other stores were also willing to participate. Penick used this tentative agreement to persuade other stores to follow suit.
When all the major downtown stores agreed to cooperate, store managers, businessmen, and representatives from the black community met to discuss arrangements for desegregation. They agreed that initially a small delegation from the black community would ask for service at specific stores at a set date and time. At first the black groups would stay only for a short while and, by pre-arrangement over the course of the next few weeks, they would increase their numbers and length of stay. Both sides agreed to notify the local police and the staff at lunch counters in advance to avoid any incidents.
On Jan. 2, 1963, Woolworth's, McLellan's, Walgreens and Blass all desegregated their lunch counters. The only dissent came from Amis Guthridge, head of the Capital Citizens' Council, an affiliate of the Association of White Citizens' Councils of Arkansas, who led a handful of die-hard segregationists in a picket of stores. Mixing anti-Semitism with anti-black feeling, they targeted Blass (which, like many other downtown stores, was owned by a Jewish family) with signs that read, "These Jews serve niggers" and "Gus Blass Company serves niggers out of the same plates as whites." When the picketing had no effect at all, the pro-segregation demonstrations ceased.
Desegregation occurred under a blanket of media silence to avoid adverse publicity that might stir up widespread opposition. The lack of local newspaper, television or radio coverage came at the request of the city's businessmen and, in the perceived interests of the community, the owners of those companies agreed to comply. Not until Jan. 20 did the first reports of desegregation emerge in the Pine Bluff Commercial that revealed the "secret."
The successful desegregation of the major lunch counters prompted many smaller businesses to follow suit shortly afterwards. By the end of January several major hotels, including the Marion, Grady Manning, Albert Pike, Lafayette and Sam Peck, as well as several motels, including Downtowner, Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson, and the Midway Bowling Alley, had desegregated.
On Feb. 15, federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the COCA desegregation lawsuit. The ruling ordered an end to segregation in all public facilities, except for public swimming pools, which COCA had not specifically mentioned in the lawsuit. COCA left out the potentially controversial request to desegregate the swimming pools as it touched upon the issue of mixed interracial bathing and deep-seated white fears of miscegenation. The battle over the city's swimming pools was delayed for another day.
In June, the city's movie theaters and drive-ins, along with Robinson Auditorium, admitted blacks on an equal basis for the first time. In September, most of the city's main restaurants served black customers. By the end of the year, all city parks, playgrounds, golf courses, the Little Rock Zoo and the Arkansas Arts Center had desegregated.
Events in Little Rock underscored the importance of the white business community in paving the way for racial change to the city. Spurred on by the refusal of black activists to settle for second-class citizenship, the business community provided leadership when the general public was reluctant to accept necessary changes and when politicians were in thrall to the electoral benefits of supporting segregation. Pragmatic self-interest drove their actions, as they realized that a more progressive social and racial climate were absolutely essential preconditions for economic advancement.
On Sept. 21, 2013, the 50th anniversary of downtown desegregation will be commemorated with the unveiling of the latest set of markers on the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail. The ceremony will take place outside the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce at 200 E. Markham St. at 10:30 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.
John A. Kirk is George W. Donaghey Professor and Chair of the History Department at UALR. He is author of "Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940-1970."