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The 1968 Little Rock uprising

The death of a black teenager inspired massive protests.


BOBBY BROWN AND MARCHERS: Brown headed up Black United Youth, which rallied in protest over the killing of Curtis Ingram at the Penal Farm. - COURTESY ARKANSAS HISTORY COMMISSION
  • Courtesy Arkansas History Commission
  • BOBBY BROWN AND MARCHERS: Brown headed up Black United Youth, which rallied in protest over the killing of Curtis Ingram at the Penal Farm.

Earlier this year, Time magazine published an iconic cover in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore. A black-and-white photograph of a black demonstrator running away from charging police was accompanied by a caption that read "America, 1968" with "1968" struck through by spray paint and "2015" scrawled above it. The cover reminded readers that the "long hot summers" of black uprisings in the mid- to late-1960s had distinct echoes in the racial unrest in places such as Ferguson and Baltimore more recently. Like almost everything else that happened elsewhere during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the same thing happened in Little Rock. Most people know the story of Little Rock's 1957 school crisis. Far fewer know about the largest deployment of the National Guard after the school crisis in the city in 1968, when three nights of racial unrest, three nights of countywide curfews and the armed occupation of a large section of the black community occurred.

The trigger for the conflict was the death of 18-year-old Curtis Ingram at the Pulaski County Penal Farm in August 1968. Ingram was arrested for a traffic violation and later charged with drug offenses when police claimed to have discovered barbiturates in his possession. He was sent to the Penal Farm to pay off his $110.50 fine at the rate of $1 a day, the terms dictated by an 1875 state law. At the Penal Farm, Ingram got sick from allergies. When he told a white trusty (a white inmate used as a guard, a common practice in the Arkansas prison system at the time) that he could not work any longer, an altercation broke out that ended with Ingram being killed after he was hit over the head with a 3-foot stick.

There followed a good deal of community debate about the incident. The trusty was charged with manslaughter. A local Little Rock organization, Black United Youth (BUY), held a community rally to protest Ingram's death. BUY's president and main spokesperson was Bobby Brown, the younger brother of Minnijean Brown, one of the nine students who desegregated Central High in 1957. On Friday, Aug. 9, BUY led a march from Dunbar Community Center at 14th Street and Wright Avenue, the heart of the African-American neighborhood, to the Pulaski County Courthouse, culminating in a rally attended by 300 people. A heavy police presence accompanied the march from the start and there were mobilized National Guardsmen stationed at Robinson Auditorium.

When the demonstration came to a close at 7:30 p.m., marchers headed south on Broadway to the Dunbar Community Center. Some marchers started to throw missiles at the police, newsmen and cars, leaving a trail of bricks and stones in their wake. Between 10th and 14th streets, as the marchers entered the black community, heated confrontations broke out. Jeeps and trucks loaded with National Guardsmen pulled into vacant lots off 14th Street. They dismounted, loaded their rifles, and fixed their bayonets at the ready.

By around 7:50 p.m. most marchers had made it back to the Dunbar neighborhood. However, there were continued reports of stone- and bottle-throwing, window-breaking, cars being attacked and even gunshots. At 8:15 p.m. the Arkansas State Police formed an armed cordon of about 80 square blocks bound by High Street (today Dr. Martin Luther King Drive), Broadway, 10th Street and Wright Avenue. At 8:45 p.m., with the situation still deteriorating, the National Guard was called into service. Fifty men were assigned to the area at 14th and Arch streets and another platoon was sent into the black neighborhood. A further 200 troops were stationed at undisclosed locations throughout the city, with another 300 on alert and 700 on standby.

The introduction of the National Guard did nothing to quell the disturbances. Quite the opposite, the violence only escalated as a result. "From this point on," reported the Arkansas Democrat, "it was all bedlam, confusion and incidents." At 8:52 p.m., police reported cars being set on fire at 26th and State streets. At 8:57 p.m., the Kerr Grocery at 900 Picron St. in the predominantly black east end of Little Rock caught fire. Gertie's Liquor Store at 14th and Chester streets had its windows broken. Fires were reported at Sixth and Townsend streets and in the 700 block of Cornish Street in the east end. A National Guard unit at 19th and Gaines streets reported "possible small arms fire."

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Aug. 10, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, who returned to Little Rock after cutting short his stay at the Republican National Convention in Miami, which had also been beset by racial unrest, agreed to meet with a delegation of black leaders at the Governor's Mansion. Their main request was "the lifting of the National Guard from the area." Afterward, between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m., Rockefeller took his own tour of the affected area in an unmarked car with a couple of his aides. The black community cordon was finally lifted at 6 a.m. the next morning.

ROCKEFELLER: Surveying a State Police graduation ceremony in Camden in 1970. - COURTESY UALR CENTER FOR ARKANSAS HISTORY AND CULTURE
  • Courtesy UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture
  • ROCKEFELLER: Surveying a State Police graduation ceremony in Camden in 1970.

As Saturday afternoon wore on, rumors circulated of more violence to follow that night. At 7 p.m., Rockefeller announced that he was imposing a countywide curfew from midnight until 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. Rockefeller told the press the only people allowed on the streets during the curfew would be "medical and paramedical personnel, bona fide transients, required public service personnel and law enforcement personnel ... All other citizens are requested to be in their place of abode. Unauthorized persons will be apprehended and booked by appropriate law enforcement personnel."

Two hundred and twenty National Guardsmen were committed to Little Rock and another 300 others were on standby at Camp Robinson. Sixty state troopers were drafted into the city. Meanwhile, the city police were working 16-hour shifts. At 5:15 p.m., Little Rock Police Chief R.E. Brians ordered all liquor stores and bars closed by 6 p.m., along with private clubs and any restaurants selling alcohol.

Despite the impending curfew and call for reinforcements, violence flared again on Saturday evening. Between 8:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., Little Rock Fire Chief Jack D. Davis reported 12 fire alarms, three of which proved false. The other nine, he claimed, were all deliberately started. The most serious incident was at 28th and Arch streets, where firemen discovered that homemade firebombs had been thrown at a house and a drug store next door. At 10 p.m., National Guardsman James C. Simpson was shot in the right foot at Wright Avenue and High Street. Police said the shot came from one of the units in the Village Square apartments and they swarmed the building. Four suspects were arrested, and one was later charged with assault with intent to kill. When news of the shooting came in, the police ordered all cars carrying black passengers stopped and searched for weapons or firebombs. Early the next morning, Chief Brians conceded that such racial profiling was illegal and ordered vehicles searched only for cause.

Sunday was relatively quiet. Rockefeller announced an earlier curfew starting at 10 p.m. Yet there were more incidents than the night before. At 9:30 p.m. shotgun pellets hit policeman Lee H. Nelson at 10th and Picron streets. At 9:50 p.m. a group of black men sat on the church roof at 2600 E. Sixth St. and threatened to burn it down and shoot anyone who tried to stop them. At 10:15 p.m., a fire was reported at 724 Townsend St. One fireman attending the blaze was hit in the mouth by a rock thrown by an unknown assailant. The fire was the most serious of a total of eight arson calls the fire department dealt with that evening. At 10:30 p.m., bullets hit a patrol car at Ninth and Kirspel streets, and rifle shots were reported at Roosevelt Street and Interstate 30. At 11:18 p.m., sniper fire was reported at 14th and Allis streets. There was sporadic gunfire at Wright Avenue and High Street, a persistent trouble spot. Twenty-five arrests were made throughout the night, 15 for curfew violations, one for carrying a concealed weapon, one for resisting arrest and the others for drunkenness.

Later that day, Rockefeller extended the curfew one more night. On Tuesday he lifted the curfew, although teams of National Guardsmen and Little Rock police continued to patrol the city. "Last night was very peaceful," Rockefeller told reporters, "and it is the judgment of the authorities that we are rapidly returning to a normal condition." The whole episode cost the city $45,900 in overtime for the police and fire departments. In all, 163 arrests were made on 198 charges: three for assault with intent to kill, 26 for weapons possession, 50 for curfew violations, nine for loitering, eight for disturbing the peace, five for resisting arrest, one for refusing to obey a police officer, 75 for drunkenness and 21 on other charges.

The events prompted black community leaders to sue for better representation on the Pulaski County Grand Jury, which was charged with overseeing investigations at the Pulaski County Penal Farm. Federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled that the lack of black participation on the jury, stretching back to at least as far as 1953, was unconstitutional. Grand juries were ordered to become more representative in the future. The white trusty who killed Curtis Ingram was sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary for involuntary manslaughter. BUY continued to press for black community concerns to be addressed in the criminal justice system, in store hiring practices, and in schools.

Little Rock's uprising of 1968 was one of the last major civil rights demonstrations witnessed by the city in the 1960s. Soon after, in the early 1970s, the gains of earlier national civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 began to make a greater impact. In 1972, Arkansas had the second largest number of black elected officials in any Southern state, and by 1976 the highest proportion of black registered voters. These changes opened up more mainstream representation and channels of grievance to the black community. However, the recent rollbacks of civil rights gains that were achieved in the 1960s, coupled with a new resurgence of black community street demonstrations in the United States, is a timely reminder of how closely connected the relationship between open, fair and equal access to rights, representation and opportunities and social order has always been. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it in his presciently titled final book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" published in 1967, "a riot is at bottom the language of the unheard."

John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity.

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