Columns » Ernest Dumas

When America was great



Donald Trump is right. There was a time when America was great and it didn't pussyfoot around to avoid offending people who thought they were victimized by discrimination. It was, let's see, the period after World War II, when everyone prospered and America was kicking butts, at home and abroad, and Arkansas's leaders were at the center of it.

Proving that history is always relevant to today, the spring issue of the staid "Arkansas Historical Quarterly" takes us back to those halcyon days of Trump's memory and the great men who bestrode the state, if not the nation, notably Congressman Ezekiel C. "Took" Gathings and Gov. Ben T. Laney.

Gathings, East Arkansas's congressman for 32 years, is the star of two brilliant articles in the "Quarterly," by professors Michael Bowman and Justin Castro at Arkansas State University. They deserve a raise, although the legislature and the governor saw to it last month that neither they nor anyone else there will get one anytime soon.

Bowman writes about Gathings' crusade in 1952 to force TV and radio to cut out sexy talk and raise necklines and lower the hemlines on women's clothes and to stamp out lewdness in books and magazines.

Castro recounts Gathings' and Laney's battles against President Truman and the Mexican government, which was refusing to let Mexicans come to Arkansas to work the cotton fields, owing to the discrimination and abuse they suffered at the hands of employers and businesses in Delta towns. Gathings accused Truman of using Southern treatment of the braceros as a wedge to pass civil rights laws to protect black people. Gathings and Laney demanded that Mexicans be allowed to come to Arkansas in droves. They even promised better treatment of Mexicans, including a minimum wage, but deplored Truman's idea of doing the same for native black people.

You can see the relevance of both to this historic presidential race, when the nearly certain Republican standard bearer has made sexiness and immigration — more of the former, less of the latter — the centerpieces of his candidacy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal some personal issues with Gathings. He fired my friend Parker Westbrook, who was spotted in the House dining room with a black female congressional aide at a time when Gathings was blasting the FBI and a federal judge for using Gestapo tactics to integrate Central High School at Little Rock. Then, in 1968, an errant Gazette copyeditor inserted the word "late" before Gathings' name in a political story of mine. Gathings instantly announced he would not run again. Though misplaced, it is the only evidence that I ever had the slightest impact on politics.

At one of his congressional hearings on media lewdness, the grinning Gathings was caught on film shimmying around the room to illustrate what he called "the hoochie coochie," which he had seen a grass-skirted girl and a scantily dressed man perform to fast music on TV.

"My children saw that and I could not get it turned off to save my life," Gathings said. "I tried." At a hearing on lewd literature, Gathings led his committee into a room for a private viewing of pornography he had collected. As is still their habit, the media, from the Arkansas Gazette to Life magazine and Groucho Marx, mocked the sensitive congressman. Newsweek ran the picture of the gyrating Gathings over the caption "House at Work."

Who knows what Donald Trump would make of Gathings' crusade, or vice versa? Trump owned the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants until last year and insisted every year on personally examining each contestant in her swimsuit. His current wife posed nude for GQ magazine on a bearskin rug in his private jet, and his last two wives (the other also was filmed nude) talked publicly about his prowess in bed. Trump told shock jock Howard Stern in 1997 that while he had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, his personal Vietnam was his relentless fight to avoid sexually transmitted diseases from his many encounters with sexy women.

Gathings' crusade against broadcast bawdiness is a fun read, but it is Professor Castro's account of Arkansas's frantic efforts to keep its Mexican workers that everyone should read —Trump, too. It is a lesson in how values can shift over time but never change at the core.

Gathings and Laney, Arkansas's first postwar governor, were known chiefly for their staunch defense of racial segregation. Laney, who was known as Business Ben, having demonstrated early business acumen by being born into oil wealth, led the Dixiecrat revolt in 1948 because the Democratic platform had a civil rights plank. But Mexicans were different.

When the Mexican government declared that Arkansas was off limits to the braceros flooding across the South and the Plains every farm season because of their mistreatment at the hands of bosses and local businesses, Laney declared that Truman and other liberals got Mexico to blacklist Arkansas in retaliation for his leading the Dixiecrat rebellion.

Gathings joined the fight to preserve Mexican immigration and carried it on until 1964, when he and the whole Arkansas delegation lost both the fight to preserve discrimination against blacks and Mexicans' privilege to work in Arkansas at better wages than were paid to blacks.

History is so much fun sometimes.

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