Columns » Ernest Dumas

Remembering WR

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Contemplating the heroics and the failures of statesmen of a bygone era and how we profited from them can be a good tonic for the despair of current events, especially if it is done in the bee-loud glade of Winthrop Rockefeller's personal Innisfree on Petit Jean Mountain.

And also if you can keep present matters from intruding too urgently on the discussions.

This was the third of the annual legacy weekends at the University of Arkansas's Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean, where scholars, aides and disciples of the 37th governor and a few docile bystanders like me who merely chronicled the struggles of the doers gather at Rockefeller's retreat to figure out just exactly what he wrought in four years as governor and another 16 as a private Arkansawyer.

Aside from these parleys, which you expect to be favorable to the man, the judgment for some years now has been, quite a lot. Historians and political scientists rank him as one of the state's most effective governors in spite of his own sense of cataclysmic failure when he left office in 1971. Nearly all his cherished initiatives had gone down to flaming defeat, followed by the voters' massive repudiation of him in the 1970 election. He never mastered his anguish and died 27 months later.

This weekend was devoted to Rockefeller's contributions to social, economic and racial justice, which was the passion of his life and which is still the mission of the nonprofits that were spun off from his estate. It was Governor Orval E. Faubus's attempt to stop the integration of schools at Little Rock in 1957 that impelled Rockefeller into politics, for which he was one of the least suited people on the planet.

Justice Robert L. Brown of the Arkansas Supreme Court, who as a young lawyer attended Rockefeller's successor, Dale Bumpers, said historians pondering the watershed event of the 20th century in Arkansas finally concluded that it was not the election of a native as president, the integration crisis at Little Rock or the formation of the greatest retail business on earth but Winthrop Rockefeller, by which he meant Rockefeller's election as governor or his arrival in Arkansas in 1953 in flight from a reproving family and society in New York. It changed the political culture and paved the way for three decades of moderate to liberal reform.

The precise watershed moment, Justice Brown and others said, might have been the afternoon of April 7, 1968, three days after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Memphis, when Rockefeller stood with his wife on the Capitol steps before an angry crowd of 3,000, linked arms with African-American ministers, eulogized King and sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” No other Southern governor, no other white political leader in America did anything so bold or so politically heedless. He faced re-election in seven months in an electorate that was 85 percent white, Democratic and as conservative as any in the country.

It was a feat so daring and unselfish that it won the admiration of even segregationist politicians like Jim Johnson. After a summer of political bumbling, he still won re-election. No Arkansas politician would ever again run a race-baiting campaign, and if the impulse hit them they retreated to subtle codes.

Dorothy Stuck, who ran weekly newspapers in Poinsett County, recalled the governor's wife, Jeanette, arriving in a rage at Marked Tree for a civic speech the evening of King's assassination. Stuck talked her out of a stern lecture to the locals about the fruits of bigotry, knowing that it would not be well received, but told her to go back to Little Rock and tell Win that he must finally do something bold to dispel the hatred and suspicion. “What in hell did you tell Jeanette?” Rockefeller asked her soon afterward.

It is safe to say that Arkansas was not quite the same after that day. Orval Faubus would run futilely three more times, each time as a reformer. Jim Johnson shunned black hands as he ran for office that year, but for the rest of his life he would rue the appearance it gave or at least the reporting of it.

Saturday afternoon, a panel of people working on human rights talked thoughtfully about how organizations like theirs might further the progress that Rockefeller had so courageously started. That is when current events began to intrude.

William L. (Sonny) Walker of Atlanta, the graying former English teacher at Horace Mann High School whom Rockefeller tapped in 1969 as the first African-American to hold a cabinet position in any Southern state, said they needed only to ask themselves WWWD, what would Win do? While things are a little better than when he left Arkansas to run the southeastern federal Office of Economic Opportunity it has not come so terri-bly far, he said, and he ticked off some shortcomings. For example, alone among all the Southern and border states, Arkansas has never been repre-sented in the United States Congress by an African American.

The morning prints carried worse signs of failure. The state higher education agency reported that the graduation rate from college was only 38 percent, the lowest level in the South, lower even than Southern states with far high ratios of blacks in the population. That suggests that blacks in Arkansas have got the least benefit from public education.

That was what Rockefeller was all about. His greatest initiative and most devastating defeat was his progressive tax program, all directed at a great leap forward in education that he was sure would transform the state and bring opportunity to the dispossessed.

Walker didn't but might have mentioned what had happened to Rockefeller's cherished Republican Party, which he and Linwood Holton of Virginia tried to remake in the image of Lincoln but which vanished without a trace about the time of his death just as its successor shuffled to Appomattox to be born.

Were he to return today Rockefeller's anguish would not be assuaged.

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