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Race, related

‘Ruled by Race’ positions itself as the definitive study in Arkansas.


“Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present” ($34.95, University of Arkansas Press, hardcover), is the latest effort by Grif Stockley to chronicle the history of race relations in Arkansas. Stockley has tackled this issue before in sev-eral books, including “Race Relations in the Natural State”; “Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas” (which won the Ragsdale award from the Arkansas Historical Association and the Arkansiana Award from the Arkansas Library Association), and “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919” (which won the Booker Worthen Prize from the Central Arkansas Library System).

In “Ruled by Race,” readers are offered what Stockley terms “a much more comprehensive version” of race relations in Arkansas. Drawing on published and unpublished historians plus substantial source materials from diverse points of reference, it reviews the history of relations between black and white people in Arkansas from slavery until now.

My first impression of “Ruled by Race” is also the most lasting one. The book is remarkable for its honest treatment of white supremacy, an issue introduced in the opening paragraph of the author's introduction and repeated at various points throughout the work. White supremacy is not something Arkansans talk about very much, let alone encounter when reading about the history of our state. Stockley confronts the subject without apology or equivocation. Consider this excerpt from his introduction:

We are ruled by race in Arkansas. For almost 150 continuous years, interrupted in part and only briefly by the politics of Re-construction, white Arkansans since territorial days used whatever means necessary to control and dominate black persons. … Beginning with slavery white Arkansans justified this domination through their insistence that blacks were not only intellectually and emotionally undeserving of democracy and equality but were inherently dangerous. This repeated justification of white supremacy was ultimately no more than a rationalization to excuse economic exploitation and continued domination.

Stockley fills the following pages of “Ruled by Race” by contrasting what he terms “this legacy of relentless white supremacy” with evidence that black Arkansans did not “remain passive in the teeth of such an onslaught.” The book also credits the influence and contributions of white Arkansans. In doing so, Stockley reveals some of the hardships, horrors and injustices suffered by black and white Arkansans who refused to acquiesce or surrender, and who actively resisted efforts by white state and local officials, business leaders and others to maintain the vestiges of white supremacy and perpetuate the myth of black inferiority.

If readers gain nothing else from “Ruled by Race,” they will benefit from the way it analyzes the lives and actions of numerous black and white Arkansans. Most people are somewhat familiar with names such as former governors Orval Faubus and Winthrop Rockefeller, attorneys W. Harold Flowers and Wiley A. Branton and L.C. and Daisy Bates. Stockley includes these and other somewhat well known personalities. However, readers will be treated to information not widely reported about them, to some extent, in other sources. For instance, one reads more about L.C. Bates in “Ruled by Race” than about Daisy Bates, which some readers will certainly find both illuminating and refreshing.

The book also provides historical insights into the lives and activities of other Arkansans and Arkansas institutions that have influenced black-white relations across time. For example, Stockley draws on previously published interviews of former slaves to provide firsthand accounts about the violence associated with slavery in Arkansas. He confronts the way that early histories of the slavery era in Arkansas were flawed, if not fraudulent, accounts about black and white relations. “Ruled by Race” touches on the work of the Arkansas Supreme Court in attempting to rationalize and justify the institution of slavery. And, with remarkable clarity, Stockley details the influence of white religious institutions in perpetuating the myth of black inferiority and the varied responses of black churches and religious personalities. Many Arkansans have little understanding about how these matters contributed to the way Arkansas developed as a state.

Similarly, many Arkansans (regardless of their racial identity) know little to nothing about what happened in Arkansas during and following the Civil War regarding race relations. How did the Reconstruction experiment fare in Arkansas? Who were the people that supported the rise of Jim Crow segregation? What did Arkansas governors during the period between the end of the Civil War and the start of the modern civil rights era do to advance or thwart efforts to provide justice and equality to the former slaves and their descendants? What happened in communities across Arkansas to account for the current paucity (or total absence) of blacks in places such as Harrison, and the relative poverty, ignorance and powerlessness of blacks in other places in Arkansas?

One can begin to better understand these and other issues by reading Stockley's book and following his analysis of the lives of people such as former governors Powell Clayton, Charles Hillman Brough and Jeff Davis. “Ruled by Race” examines the role that violence against blacks by whites has played across Arkansas history, and matter-of-factly mentions that in almost every instance, whites were able to engage in violence without risk of prosecution, or they escaped punishment in most of the few instances when prosecution occurred. And, Stockley discusses how black Arkansans managed to survive and maintain semblances of family and community life in the face of domestic terrorism that was often governmentally tolerated, if not governmentally sanctioned. In doing so, Stockley goes far be-yond analysis of the Elaine Race Massacres to include less well-known instances of violence that occurred in communities across Arkansas during various periods of its history.

“Ruled by Race” is not light reading. Although Stockley employs a conversational approach in the text, the nature of the subject, the honest way that it is treated, and the sheer length of the book (954 pages) will challenge some readers. In several places, I would have preferred that long paragraphs be shortened in order to make the text more readable. Stockley does not apologize for his forthright attempt to draw moral significance from the historical events and the political, social and legal consequences associated with them.

It might have also been helpful if Stockley had devoted more of the book to recent events that affect race relations in Arkansas. For example, readers will find several pages on the lives of black attorneys Scipio Africanus Jones, W. Harold Flowers, and Stockley's fellow Lee County native Olly Neal Jr. However, little mention is made about the lives and work of attorneys George Howard Jr., John W. Walker, Richard Mays, Phillip Kaplan, John Lavey, and Perlesta A. Hollingsworth, whose efforts were directly related to many of the civil rights legal victories that occurred after 1957. Readers would have also benefited from knowing how black educators man-aged to challenge and guide people such as Lottie Shackelford, Richard Mays, Olly Neal, and other black Arkansans despite the inequities they experienced during the Jim Crow era in public education. Shockley mentions efforts by the University of Arkansas to recruit and retain black students, staff and faculty, the fact that the 1969 football game between the University of Arkansas and the University of Texas marked the last time that a national college football championship involved two all-white teams, and the fact that Nolan Richardson was hired as head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas in 1985 and later sued the University after he was terminated. Yet, readers will not learn that a black law student (Darrell Brown) was shot the night before the 1969 Arkansas-Texas football game, nor does the book examine the controversy that led to and followed the firing of Nolan Richardson. Given Stockley's honest approach to the issue of white supremacy and the role of violence and intimidation in furthering it, these and similar omissions are unfortunate.

Nevertheless, “Ruled by Race” is, by Stockley's own account, only a beginning in the effort of professional historians to explore Ar-kansas racial history between blacks and whites. Readers will find helpful references to the work of other historians in the text and in footnotes. Hopefully, the book will be accepted by educators, policy makers and families as a useful tool for gaining a more accurate un-derstanding of Arkansas history so they can relate that history to current and future situations.

Grif Stockley has made an honest effort to address the history of black and white relations in Arkansas by authoring “Ruled by Race.” What remains is for the rest of Arkansas to exercise the same honesty and diligence in reading and understanding that history which has been neglected and/or mistreated for much too long.

Wendell Griffen is a visiting professor at UALR's William H. Bowen School of Law and the CEO of Griffen Strategic Consulting PLLC.


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