From Chapter 12 of
Arkansas: A Narrative History
By Jeannie M. Whayne, Thomas A. DeBlack, George Sabo
A Light in the Darkness: Limits of Progressive Reform
1909 - Present
The Impulse for Progressive Reform
The progressive movement began just after the turn of the century and marked an attempt by various interests to come to terms with a society in the midst of a dramatic transformation. The industrial revolution, urbanization, and the emergence of giant corporations seemed to threaten order and stability, and people throughout the country reacted by attempting numerous reforms. Although the movement is regarded largely as an urban phenomenon, city progressives had their rural and small-town counterparts in southern states like Arkansas. Not surprisingly, the reforms generated by southerners were often peculiar to the South and the rural experience, although many mirrored reforms occurring in the cities.
Voting qualifications for immigrants in northern cities, for example, were not so very different from disfranchisement mechanisms applied to Blacks. Indeed, many of the reforms passed during this era were repressive; that is, they limited the opportunities or the behavior of certain groups in American society, and they failed to gain the support of all who might term themselves progressives.
Nationally, African American leaders and their white allies were not unmindful of the new racist ideology and grew concerned enough to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) February 12, 1909, and is America’s oldest civil rights organization.
Among the founders was Black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois. Within a decade after its founding, Black membership in the NAACP expanded as chapters were chartered in states, counties, cities, and towns.
The organization was slow to develop in the South, however, until after Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915. Washington had been hostile to the NAACP, largely because its agenda and strategy was diametrically opposed to his own. Washington preached economic self-help, foreswore political involvement, and essentially espoused acceptance of a racial status quo that included the political and social subordination of the Black population. The NAACP directly challenged both segregation and disfranchisement and became intimately involved in certain high-profile criminal cases involving poor and often illiterate African Americans.
While Washington was alive, relatively few blacks, south or north, were willing to risk involvement with the NAACP, but once he died, the southern Black elite often became the leaders in establishing branches of the organization. Little Rock’s black aristocracy was no exception.
The first local branch in Arkansas was established in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on July 4, 1918, and chartered in November of the same year.
Some of the leading Black businessmen and professionals in the city founded a local chapter of the NAACP. The president was John Hamilton McConico, and the fifty founding members. The list of founding members reads like a who’s who of the Little Rock black establishment: Aldridge. E. and Chester E. Bush, sons of John E. Bush, the founder of the Mosaic Templars in Little Rock; George William Stanley Ish, a black physician from an elite Little Rock family; Joseph Albert Booker, president of Arkansas Baptist College; Dr. John Marshall Robinson, a prominent Little Rock physician; and Isaac Taylor Gillam, a well-known black politician.
Like some other local chapters, however, the Little Rock chapter served principally as a social club rather than as a Black activist organization. The Black elite there was an insular group existing within a small city that had hardly outgrown its “frontier” status. They had carved out a comfortable existence for themselves, lived in fine homes in integrated neighborhoods, and enjoyed privileges that most other Blacks did not have access to. Many of them had imbibed enough of the Washington accommodationist message to preclude any very activist agenda, and while other individuals within the organization were more militant, most were loath to risk what they had secured for the sake of pursuing the NAACP’s goals of achieving civil and political rights for the Black population as a whole.
Some among the African American elite in Little Rock, however, would grow weary of the passive role the city’s NAACP chapter adopted and pursue a more activist agenda, but this would not occur until the 1920s.
Booker T. Washington with Arkansas black leaders.
Seated: Booker T. Washington; standing, left to right: Joseph Booker, Emmett J. Scott, and John E. Bush. Courtesy of Alice Saville Bush.
When attorney William Harold Flowers ousted Reverend Marcus Taylor in 1948 as Arkansas State Conference president it gave heart to other local activists. In 1948, the co-owner of Little Rock’s Arkansas State Press newspaper, Daisy Bates, filed an application to form a countywide “Pulaski County Chapter of the NAACP” in an attempt to undercut the authority of conservative leaders in the Little Rock NAACP branch. NAACP director of branches Gloster B. Current turned down Bates’s application and told her to join the Little Rock branch instead.
Bates’s election coincided with a fateful phase of the NAACP’s history in the state. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which decreed an end to segregated schools. The NAACP led the struggle to implement Brown in Arkansas.
When efforts to persuade Little Rock school superintendent Virgil T. Blossom to proceed with school desegregation in a transparent and timely manner failed, the local Little Rock NAACP branch filed suit in Aaron v. Cooper (1956). The courts subsequently upheld the limited plan for desegregation drawn up by Blossom.
In September 1957, the struggle over school desegregation culminated in the Little Rock desegregation crisis. Daisy Bates, along with her husband, L. C. Bates, played an important role in looking after the interests of the nine students (who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine) who desegregated Central High School. The Bateses suffered a number of attacks on their home by segregationists. An advertising boycott put the Arkansas State Press out of business in 1959. State Attorney General Bruce Bennett pressed Daisy Bates to release NAACP membership details, which she refused to do.
On September 12, 1958, the NAACP successfully argued the landmark ruling of Aaron v. Cooper (1958) before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that violence and disruption could not be used as excuses to delay school desegregation. Governor Orval Faubus then closed all of Little Rock’s schools to prevent integration. In a referendum, Little Rock voters backed his school-closing plan, and schools remained closed in the 1958–59 academic year, known as the Lost Year. In May 1959, members of the white community mobilized to remove segregationist school board members. Schools reopened on a token desegregated basis in August 1959.
Dale Charles became president of the Little Rock NAACP branch in 1988.
The current mission statement of the Little Rock Branch is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority groups and citizens; achieve equality of rights and eliminate race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; remove all barriers of racial discrimination through the democratic processes; seek to enact and enforce federal, state, and local laws securing civil rights; inform the public on the adverse effects of racial discrimination and seeks its elimination; educate persons as to their constitutional rights and to take lawful action in furtherance of these principles.”