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Rooting out “Commies” and closet integrationists


INSTITUTIONALIZED BIGOTRY: Gov. Faubus, speaking at a seg rally, led the pack.
  • INSTITUTIONALIZED BIGOTRY: Gov. Faubus, speaking at a seg rally, led the pack.

A white woman drove down a Little Rock street one day in 1957 with a black man beside her. Unknown to her, she was seen and reported to the Arkansas State Police.

A husband and wife held a conversation about racial integration in a public place. They were overheard. Their names were sent to the state police.

The nine black kids who broke the racial barrier at Central High that fall went to school scared every day, and their parents and mentors went to bed scared every night. They weren't the only ones who needed to be afraid. That same fall, and for years afterward, something else was happening in Arkansas. Hundreds of citizens who dared oppose the orthodox bigotry came under the scrutiny of the state government. Although only a relatively few knew about it, what we had for five or six years was a chilling little do-it-yourself police state.

Several Southern states experienced the same thing during the South's massive resistance to racial integration. Mississippi, of course, was the worst.

I had occasion some years ago to examine law enforcement and the legal system when I was researching a book on Orval E. Faubus, the governor who used the National Guard to block the desegregation of Central High. Much of the sordid story is in the unpublished state police files archived in Special Collections at the University of Arkansas library at Fayetteville. Another part of it, outrageously enough, was always out in the open.

Our state legislature passed a loyalty oath in 1958 requiring teachers and public employees to list the organizations they belonged to — the NAACP was the main target — and swear allegiance to the state and nation or be fired. The state Supreme Court declared this mandate unconstitutional by the narrowest possible vote in 1960.

Attorney General Bruce Bennett, the state's chief legal officer, who coveted Faubus' job, tried to position himself to the governor's right by conducting televised hearings in the late 1950s to root out the Communists he was sure were running the integration scheme behind the scenes. He thoroughly smeared a number of moderates and liberals, including Harry Ashmore, the executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette, but failed to nail any bona fide Reds.

He relied mainly on the testimony of imported experts, including a couple of old lapsed Communists. He could have stepped down the hall and asked the governor to come up and explain the nuances of socialism and communism if he had thought to look for a home-grown expert. Faubus' father had been a principal organizer for the Socialist Party in Arkansas, and the son was knowledgeable about left-wing politics. Bennett might not have known that. The governor was modest about it.

Faubus, having moved beyond his progressive youth, now pretended to see the threat from Moscow reaching as far as Fort Smith and Watson Chapel. He signed a bill making membership in the Communist Party a felony punishable by six years in prison. He put the state Department of Education to work to comply with a legislative directive to find and remove all subversive and un-American philosophies from the state's textbooks.

In 1959, the Faubus administration fired several state employees suspected of being closet integrationists. According to the police files, life also was unsettling for the faculty and staff of the University of Arkansas. The police kept a list of university people who had spoken out against the governor's actions on desegregation, relying on local informers. Several teachers left for jobs where they didn't have to look over their shoulders.

The administration built a network of informants across the state. They were especially active in Little Rock, which was thought to be a hotbed of integrationists. One informant wrote a report on a variety store that catered to a biracial clientele. Another saw a white woman driving a car carrying black children. A state employee was seen entering a store where Daisy Bates was a customer. The information went into the employee's file.

Scores, perhaps hundreds, of such informants reported to the Criminal Investigation Division of the state police. The detectives there not only investigated those reports, they went much further. They tapped telephones, tape-recorded meetings, kept records on suspect groups and their members, and documented damaging personal information about the administration's opponents, paying special attention to adultery and homosexuality.

The detectives were intensely interested in a black porter at a downtown hotel. He was said to be active in the loathed NAACP. They noted with salacious satisfaction that he was reported to be a pimp who was intimate with a white prostitute. All such choice tidbits were passed on to the governor by the state police director.

Certain churches were targeted. The Unitarians, of course, and a few others, like the Pulaski Heights Christian Church, which was known for its mainly liberal congregation. The pastor there once preached a sermon denouncing segregation and lost 10 percent of his members. Those who did not leave had to be considered suspicious characters. After that, the state police took a special interest in the place. They wrote down the license numbers of all the cars parked there one Sunday evening and checked them for ownership. I regret that my name was not included. My family joined the church sometime later.

The arts also were considered a breeding ground of the left-wing conspiracy.

“Indications point that anything pertaining to Fine Arts, such as acting, dancing, directors of such come from the controversial crowd,” one report said.

Among the suspects in that category were the director of the community theater and Mrs. Winthrop Rockefeller.

Officials of black educational institutions felt the administration's pressure. A student was expelled from the all-black Arkansas AM and N College at Pine Bluff for supporting civil rights too enthusiastically.

One state police inspector — part Javert, part Clouseau — was convinced that racial integration was synonymous with Communism, and he saw the menace everywhere. He was determined to stamp it out.

He finally uncovered the “hard core nucleus of the extreme left wing.” It was the Little Rock chapter of the Council on Foreign Relations. He obtained the entire membership list. It included virtually every important person of the capital's business and professional class. If he had been able to put them all in prison, where they belonged, the Little Rock Country Club would have been decimated.

Years later, Faubus denied ordering the dirty work, suggesting that some in the state police were just trying to curry favor with him. If so, that meant he lost control of one of the most important agencies of state government. Whatever his role, it is obvious that he found the information provided by the gumshoes useful, and there is ample evidence that he encouraged them. By the late 1950s, he had become angry and perhaps fearful, cornered by the consequences of his own ill-considered actions.

What began as investigation quickly became a kind of silent harassment. Quite ordinary citizens found themselves suspects in something described as an international conspiracy to overturn the American way of life. People feared for their reputations. Some feared for their jobs and businesses, and with good reason. In retrospect, what we should have feared was the loss of our self-respect.

Roy Reed is professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. After eight years as a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette, he was a national and foreign correspondent for The New York Times from 1965 to 1978. He is the author of “Faubus: The Life And Times Of An American Prodigal.”

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