We were in Helena five years ago for a conference on the Elaine race riots of 1919. Folks came from Little Rock and beyond, but not so many from there in Phillips County, where they want to let shameful bygones be shameful bygones. We were there to pore over what was known and not known about that evil horror eight decades before.
Black sharecroppers just returned from serving their country in World War I had presumed to organize for better treatment from landowners. A sheriff's deputy staked out a meeting where the union people from Chicago had brought armed guards, and someone fired first.
White men from all around, from Mississippi and Tennessee, many "landless" and fearful of black gains, heeded the call. It amounted to open season. Some say 25 blacks were killed; some say 856. Only blacks got arrested. That a question of 831 lives could be left unanswered to the next century was the greatest inhumanity of all.
I was next door to the conference having coffee with a freelance magazine writer who looked up at a man entering the cafe and said, "Now there's the classic Bubba." I glanced at the man, was delighted to see who it was, and replied, "Not exactly."
He certainly looked the stereotype, a round face under a ball cap, jeans, a rumpled shirt, an ample girth. But as I told the magazine writer, "Your classic Bubba would not have been the ACLU's Civil Libertarian of the Year a couple of years ago."
Your classic Bubba also would not have co-sponsored the bill to repeal the state sodomy law, announced that his son was gay and declared that being gay was neither a choice nor something one could change. You classic Bubba would not have spoken against resolutions opposing flag-burning and advocating prayer in school.
This was Mike Everett, Democratic state senator. He had driven down from his law office in Marked Tree, and he came over to extend his greetings. He told us in that gruff and brutally candid way of his that if it was left to him, the state would devote whatever time and resources were necessary to dig up rumored mass graves and get to the bottom of what happened in and around Elaine.
They called Everett "Zone," for that other-worldly place he always seemed to be, when was a defensive lineman and place-kicker for Arkansas State University. He liked to hop on his motorcycle each year and ride alone through Mexico, subsisting on rice and beans.
And there was some Bubba in him for sure.
He was quite the hunter. And on the day the state Senate was to consider the bill repealing the law against sodomy, and inevitably defeat it soundly, Everett told his colleagues in their "quiet room" that he understood if they had to vote against the bill, even speak against it. But he said that if anyone got cute or snide or derisive about gay people, he would take that as a personal affront to his son and whip their you-know-whats right there on the Senate floor.
His colleagues tempered their rhetoric. They knew Everett could kick their you-know-whats. And they couldn't be sure he wouldn't.
He was a civil libertarian and liberal who would fight. Term limits already had left the legislature without this one brave vote, this one uncompromising voice. Now he's gone from the Earth, colon cancer having given no consideration to his status as an endangered species.
The other day I asked Rita Sklar, who heads the ACLU in Arkansas, if she recalled the specific reason for Everett's award as Civil Libertarian of the Year in 1997.
"Yeah," she said. "He had a spine."