One day in September 1957, Bill Floyd traveled by bus to Little Rock for an afternoon doctor's appointment, but arrived early enough in the morning to satisfy his curiosity and witness history. Disembarking, he asked a man on a downtown street corner for directions to Central High School, site of violent protests over the Little Rock School Board's decision to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 order to desegregate public schools. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had called up the National Guard to block the Little Rock Nine and protect, in his words, "public safety."
As it turned out, the man was headed Floyd's way and offered a ride. Floyd accepted, but as he approached the man's pickup truck he saw a fully stocked gun rack hanging over the back window — and paused.
Floyd was the student association president of Harding College (now Harding University), a segregated, Churches of Christ-affiliated liberal arts school 50 miles northeast in Searcy. A wiry, nondescript former track star with wavy brown hair, Floyd excelled academically but made his mark as a cutup with slapstick chapel skits and post-curfew pranks. Humor often endears, and to the surprise of the straight-arrow gunners, politicos, jocks and "preacher boys," Floyd had emerged as a darkhorse winner in the previous spring's student government elections.
"Where y'all from?" the driver asked.
"Searcy," Floyd replied.
"What do you think of the governor's action?"
Bill Floyd's father was a Church of Christ preacher who had been fired from the pulpit numerous times for preaching against Jim Crow. With every new church, Floyd's father could only hold his tongue for so long. Floyd aspired to follow in his father's footsteps. He became a champion debater, and he was unafraid to speak his mind.
Floyd replied, "I think history will show Governor Faubus' action to be ill-advised."
What happened next happened fast. The driver reached across Floyd, flung open the passenger door, and with his elbow sent him flying toward the gutter. As Floyd lay dazed, the driver slammed on his brakes and threw the truck in reverse. Floyd jumped behind what he called, years later, a "trembling" telephone pole.
The driver shouted, "No goddamn nigger lover is ever riding in my truck!"
He hit the gas and sped away.
Floyd waited until the truck was gone and then joined a crowd walking toward Central High. From a distance, he spotted the school and the large crowd of protestors, soldiers, and police. He dared not get too close, however. He was afraid the truck driver might spot him and finish what he had started.
After Floyd hit the ground that day, he returned to Searcy and lit a pro-integration fire among fellow Harding students who had witnessed the early events of the civil rights era and searched their souls for their response.
At Harding College, Floyd faced a more formidable foe than Orval Faubus. At least the governor of Arkansas was constrained by his state constitution and had to answer to the people. Harding College President George Stuart Benson answered to no one except himself and, presumably, God.
By 1957, Benson had led Harding College away from its apolitical and pacifist roots and transformed it into a nationally renowned stronghold of conservative politics. Through pamphlets and films produced by his brainchild, the National Education Program (NEP), Benson preached the merits of his twin pillars of "Godliness and Patriotism." His creed was the "Three Cs" — Constitution, capitalism and Christianity — along with a strong antipathy to Communism. This promotion of civil religion and Americanism represented a sharp break with founding influences James Harding and David Lipscomb, two turn-of-the-century Church of Christ preachers who had emphasized kingdom come over money and guns. But World War I had produced a fundamental shift, a fusion of faith and politics that would mark the small, mostly Southern denomination for decades to come. Pacifists, once honored with the best seats in the church house, became unpatriotic pariahs.
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