The 1966 gubernatorial election was a defining moment in 20th century Arkansas politics. Not before nor since has the electorate been offered such a polar choice of candidates. New York-born millionaire Winthrop Rockefeller's victory over homegrown Crossett lawyer James D. Johnson made Rockefeller the first Republican governor of Arkansas in 94 years. Rockefeller's victory, and his 1968 re-election, produced a thoroughgoing reform of the Arkansas Democratic Party and introduced a two-party political system to the state for the first time in living memory.
Rockefeller was an unlikely champion in Arkansas politics. Born May 1, 1912, he was the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, one of the founders of Standard Oil Company, and the son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the sole male heir to the family fortune. Rockefeller grew up in New York with his older sister and as the second youngest of five brothers. After attending schools in New York and Connecticut, Rockefeller enrolled at Yale University. A restless spirit, he never settled at Yale, and he left in his junior year to go work as a roustabout in the Texas oil fields.
Rockefeller subsequently held several jobs with family connections from Chase Manhattan Bank to Socony-Vacuum Oil Company before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1941. He saw active service during World War II in the Pacific at Guam, Leyte and Okinawa. On April 2, 1945, Rockefeller's ship the Henrico was attacked by a kamikaze pilot, killing 75 and wounding 150 men. Rockefeller suffered flash burns and was hospitalized for six weeks. By the end of the war, he had risen from the rank of private to lieutenant colonel.
After returning from the war to New York, Rockefeller was one of the most eligible bachelors in the United States. However, a short-lived and ill-fated marriage to Barbara "Bobo" Sears resulted in an acrimonious divorce, though the union did produce a son, Winthrop Paul. Looking to escape the glare of publicity, in 1953 Rockefeller took the advice of former army buddy, Arkansan Frank Newell, and moved to the state. He bought a 927-acre tract on top of Petit Jean Mountain and immediately began building Winrock Farms, stocking its fields with prime Santa Gertrudis cattle. In 1956, Rockefeller married Jeanette Edris from Seattle and gained two stepchildren, Ann and Bruce Bartley.
Gov. Orval Faubus quickly sought to enlist Rockefeller's name and business contacts to serve the state. In 1955, Faubus appointed Rockefeller chair of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC), and Rockefeller set about luring new industry to the state with great success. Then came the 1957 Little Rock school crisis. Rockefeller pleaded with Faubus not to embark on a reckless course of calling out the National Guard to prevent school desegregation. Faubus did not listen. No new companies located to Little Rock for the next three years because of the racial crisis that enveloped the city.
Rockefeller was convinced that to advance Arkansas economically he would have to steer the state in a new direction politically. In 1964, he resigned as AIDC chair and ran against Faubus for governor. He lost, and Faubus won a record-breaking sixth term in office. Undeterred, Rockefeller immediately began preparing for his next campaign. His chances of success were boosted when Faubus declared that he would not seek re-election in 1966.
The Democratic nominee in 1966 was James D. Johnson. Johnson's background, career, and political outlook could not have been more different than Rockefeller's. From the small lumber town of Crossett, Johnson was the son of an independent grocer. Educated in local schools, he attended Cumberland University Law School in Birmingham, Ala., where he entered politics at the age of 23, working for the National States' Rights Party 1948 presidential candidate Strom Thurmond.
In 1950, Johnson was elected the youngest state senator in Arkansas history. After two terms in office, in 1954 Johnson made a failed bid to become attorney general. The following year, he emerged at the forefront of Arkansas's massive resistance movement against school desegregation as the leader of the Associated White Citizens' Council of Arkansas. In 1956, he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent governor Orval Faubus in the Democratic Party primary. In 1958, he won election to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
In 1966, with Faubus out of the way, Johnson made a second run for governor. Billing himself as "Justice" Jim Johnson he campaigned in the same folksy, revivalist, conservative pro-segregation manner as he'd done against Faubus 10 years earlier. Johnson's main selling point in the Democratic primary was that he could distance himself from the Faubus Democratic machine and cast himself as "the only choice for change."
The Arkansas Republican Party gubernatorial primary that year was the first in almost a decade. A 1957 state law had required political parties to hold primary elections for contested posts and the Republicans duly began to comply in 1958. However, the winner of the Republican primary for governor that year went on to poll so few votes in the general election that the Republicans decided to save their money. From then on they nominated just one candidate for each office, removing the legal obligation to hold party primaries.
In 1966, to force a Republican primary election, an old Faubus supporter, Gus McMillan, filed against Rockefeller. It was a futile gesture: Rockefeller handily won the primary by 19,956 to 310 votes. It also proved a political miscalculation: "Our Democratic opponents...hoped we would have to hold a statewide primary, with the idea that the expense and trouble would weaken us," observed Arkansas Republican Party chair John Paul Hammerschmidt. "On the contrary, it will make us stronger." The primary provided a useful electoral dry run ahead of the general election and a chance to mobilize grassroots support.
At the 1966 Democratic State Convention, Faubus stole the show on the first day with a triumphalist speech about his achievements as governor. The next day, Johnson delivered his convention speech in which he railed against his opponent Rockefeller as a "Madison Avenue Cowboy" and "prissy sissy." Johnson declared that by contrast he stood for "the preservation of our Christian faith and heritage, the preservation of constitutional government, and the preservation of our right to own and control private property."
Unease over Johnson's candidacy within Democratic ranks led to the formation of a "Democrats for Rockefeller" organization made up of liberal Democrats who did not like Johnson's ultra-conservative politics. Johnson sought to counter this move with a "Republicans for Jim Johnson" organization but, as one Rockefeller man noted, it "could have met in a telephone booth." Operating from a small two-room office at the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, "Democrats for Rockefeller" ran stinging campaign ads with lines such as, "Do the Democratic Party a favor ... Vote for Rockefeller!"
Developments in the national Democratic Party also went against Jim Johnson. The growing unpopularity of President Lyndon B. Johnson in Arkansas threatened to weaken support for all Democratic candidates in the state. "There can be no doubt about it," noted one Democratic pollster, "President Johnson is in a poor shape in Arkansas today." This was put down to "frustration over the Vietnam War, unhappiness at the high cost of living and the feeling that he has gone too far on racial problems."
Republican pollsters had Lyndon Johnson down as low as 27 per cent of the vote in the state. Jim Johnson sought to distance himself from his presidential namesake, reassuring voters that, "I'm...not kin to Lyndon Johnson, either by blood or philosophically." Jim Johnson could point to the fact that he had strongly endorsed conservative Republican Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 as proof of this. Yet neither Jim Johnson's rejection of Lyndon Johnson nor his support for Barry Goldwater played well in the campaign. His attacks on the incumbent president only succeeded in pushing liberal Democrats closer to Rockefeller. Meanwhile, Rockefeller exploited Johnson's support for Goldwater in 1964 by asking "If Jimmy Johnson can support a Republican, why can't everybody else?"
Polling told the Rockefeller camp that the three main issues of interest to voters in Arkansas were education, jobs and roads. On education, Johnson's opposition to the Brown decision and his involvement with the 1957 school crisis contrasted with Rockefeller's investment of money in a model school program in Morrilton. On jobs, Rockefeller's record with the AIDC in bringing new industry to the state was unsurpassed. On roads, Rockefeller had already committed to developing the state's infrastructure.
What many voters appeared to want most in 1966 was change: a new politics, a new direction, and new ideas for advancing Arkansas's politics, economy, society and culture. As one of Rockefeller's campaign team summed up, "the segregationist, evangelical appeal of Jim Johnson just did not fit the 20th century image Arkansans were so anxious to achieve."
Fortunately for Rockefeller, many of the "hot button" issues which today prove beneficial to conservative Republicans, and which would have benefited Jim Johnson in 1966, did not appear relevant. Voters were in two minds over Johnson's combining of religion and politics. While 65 per cent thought that whether a candidate went to church or not would make a difference to their vote, 75 per cent thought that religion should not play a role in politics. Likewise, almost three-quarters of voters did not see Rockefeller's status as a divorce as a problem. In the pre-Roe v. Wade world, abortion policy did not feature at all. Neither did the question of teaching evolution in schools, which was already outlawed in Arkansas. This meant that two-thirds of Arkansas voters did not know what evolution theory was. The third that did were evenly split over whether it should be taught in schools.
Johnson's opposition to big government actually hurt him when Rockefeller raised the question of how safe the state's federal aid would be in his opponent's hands. This was crucial in Arkansas in the 1960s when for every one dollar of taxpayers' money that left the state three federal tax dollars came in. Many people in Arkansas relied on some sort of federal subsidy. Supporting increases in these payments was a political necessity. Both candidates fought over who could deliver Arkansans the most welfare money. Johnson promised an extra 10 dollars per head of population within a year of election. Rockefeller assured voters that "it is both a moral obligation and in society's best interest to help those unable to help themselves."
If there was one issue that proved a tiebreaker it was civil rights. Rockefeller was known to be the more racially liberal candidate, although he was reluctant to trumpet this for fear of alienating conservative white voters. Johnson, the state's former White Citizens' Council head, from the outset refused to shake hands with African Americans on the campaign trail and made it perfectly clear that he did not want black votes.
Johnson's position on civil rights cost him dearly. With increasing racial strife in the nation in the mid-to-late-1960s Arkansas voters were concerned about what would happen in their state. They were wary about Johnson's fiery rhetoric on race fanning the flames of discord. In 1964, Faubus had outscored Rockefeller among voters when asked which candidate could best keep the racial peace. In 1966, they went for Rockefeller over Johnson by a three-to-one margin. As Rockefeller noted, "The reckless course of white supremacy at any cost was running out of appeal; it was losing its credibility with the people."
African-American voters were the decisive factor in the outcome of the election. In 1964, the passage of the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed the use of the poll tax in federal elections. The following year, Arkansas abolished the poll tax altogether and introduced a permanent personal voter registration system. The new system required a free, one-off registration that in most cases lasted a lifetime. Along with the efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to register African-American voters in the state, money from the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project, which was directed by Arkansas Pine Bluff attorney Wiley Branton, and Rockefeller's own considerable resources, there was a significant rise in African-American registered voters.
Rockefeller won the election by 306,324 to 257,203 votes (54.4 per cent to 45.6 per cent), a margin of just 49,121 votes. Estimates have put Rockefeller narrowly losing to Johnson on white votes alone by about 18,000. But Rockefeller claimed at least 67,000 more African-American votes than Johnson, enough for the winning margin overall. Rockefeller was again re-elected with a substantial African-American vote in 1968.
During his two terms in office, Rockefeller battled a largely hostile, overwhelmingly Democrat-dominated state legislature. In 1967, there were no Republican state senators at all and Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the Arkansas House of Representatives by 97 seats to 3. Nevertheless, among Rockefeller's achievements in office, as well as a more progressive racial agenda of toleration and affirmative action in state government hiring practices, was the adoption of the state's first minimum wage law, a freedom of information law, a tightening of tax legislation and a crackdown on illegal gambling. The most wide-ranging reforms came in the state's notoriously archaic penal system. Rockefeller brought better medical care, better food and an educational program to Arkansas prisons. During his tenure as governor, Rockefeller also replaced a trusty system of inmate supervision with hired guards to weed out day-to-day corruption. An ardent opponent of the death penalty, Rockefeller's final act in office was to commute the death sentences of all 15 men on death row.
Defeated in the 1970 election by Democrat Dale Bumpers, Rockefeller withdrew from the political scene and fell seriously ill not long after. On February 22, 1973, Rockefeller died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 60.
The longest lasting legacy of the 1966 election was its impact on the Arkansas Democratic Party. The election of Dale Bumpers in 1970 offered what many Arkansans had wanted all along: a Rockefeller program for reform run and implemented by a Democrat. Bumpers was one of a number of so-called "New Democrats" to emerge in the South in the 1970s. Jim Johnson's 1966 defeat convinced Arkansas Democrats to eschew their segregationist past and to instead embrace a new brand of progressive politics.
Bumpers, who later went on to become one of Arkansas's two U.S. Senators, was succeeded by another liberal Democrat, David Pryor. Pryor, in turn, went on to win election as Arkansas's other U.S. senator. Bill Clinton succeeded Pryor and, of course, went even further in his political career by going all the way to the White House in 1992 and then again in 1996. No one was better placed than Clinton to point out that, "Ironically...it was the Democratic Party which benefitted most from Rockefeller's Republican administration."
Without Rockefeller's 1966 victory there may well have never been a Clinton presidency. At the same time, paradoxically, Rockefeller's victory also paved the way for the emergence of a two-party system in Arkansas and laid the longer-term foundations for the Republican Party to become a force in state politics. When Rockefeller was elected governor in 1966, Republican Party chair John Paul Hammerschmidt also won Arkansas's Third U.S. Congressional District. This was the Republicans' first Arkansas U.S. Congress seat in the 20th century. Republicans have held the district ever since and have expanded their influence throughout the rest of the state. Rockefeller's son, Winthrop Paul, was a Republican lieutenant governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2006. On the cusp of a run for governor in 2006, he too fell seriously ill and like his father he died tragically young at the age of 57.
As Arkansas commemorates the 100th anniversary of Winthrop Rockefeller's birth, his legacy in politics, as in so many other aspects of the state's life, remains both very tangible and profoundly influential.
John A. Kirk is Donaghey professor and chair of the history department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. A longer version of this article was published as "A Southern Road Less Travelled: The 1966 Arkansas Gubernatorial Election and (Winthrop) Rockefeller Republicanism in Dixie," in "Painting Dixie Red: When, Where, Why, and How the South Became Republican," edited by Glenn Feldman, University Press of Florida, 2011.
The personal papers of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, Gov. Dale Bumpers, and Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller can all be found at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture at the Arkansas Studies Institute. For more information see ualr.edu/cahc.