"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Robert "Say" McIntosh is not the man he once was.
At 67 years old, he shuffles now. His hands shake. When you ask him a question, it takes him awhile to formulate an answer, and when that answer comes, it's usually a gravelly exclamation of only a sentence or two, as if each thought is a keg of nails he has to physically lift over his lips and teeth. This, from the man who once openly taunted bigots, black icons, mayors, governors, senators and a man who would become president.
For those reading this who aren't old enough or long enough in Little Rock to remember Say McIntosh as the professional provocateur whose name and politically-fueled media events were in the newspaper or on TV on almost a weekly basis in the 1980s and early 1990s, it's hard to fathom just how deep the feelings about him ran in this town once. Who McIntosh is depends on who you ask about him. To some, he was a civil rights leader. For others: A hero. A blowhard. A lunatic. A champion. A character. A villain. A violent man. A philanthropist. An opportunist. A shill. A pioneer. An attention junkie, drawn to the TV cameras as a moth is to a flame.
A Say McIntosh flyer retrospective
Flyers courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.
Funny thing is, he's probably all that — or, at least, he once was. People are rarely simple enough to be accurately boiled down in the newspaper. McIntosh definitely isn't. Given that the thread of his life is woven through two or three decades of Little Rock history, though, it's probably important to try.
Time may cause all things to pass away, but the frustration that McIntosh could incite in his prime tends to linger. There are undoubtedly still old grayheads in this town who will see his face on the cover of this paper and wad it up in disgust. One thing is for sure, though: He's the kind of guy who would take that as a compliment.
It probably says a lot about McIntosh — the real McIntosh, not the media reflection he crafted — that the first mention of him to be found in the old back-issues of the Arkansas Gazette is a story about him donating his time, resources and energy so hungry people could eat.
McIntosh, who moved from Osceola — first to Woodson, then to Granite Mountain —with his family when he was 6 years old, spent much of his life involved in the restaurant business as a 9-to-5 job, starting work as a waiter at Franke's Cafeteria downtown when he was a teen-ager. He eventually owned a series of restaurants in the black community, where he served up barbecue, plate lunches and his locally-famous sweet potato pie — earning him the possibly self-bestowed title of "The Sweet Potato Pie King" of Little Rock. One reason why those restaurants never tended to last long-term is foreshadowed in the Gazette's Nov. 25, 1976, story about McIntosh preparing a free Thanksgiving dinner for 500 impoverished Little Rock residents at the first incarnation of his restaurant at High Street (now Martin Luther King) and Wright Avenue. As his friends will tell you, he has always been generous to a fault, and was usually broke because he gave away everything he had, including paying for at least part of the dozens of bikes, dolls and other toys he handed out to poor children every year at Christmastime as Little Rock's premier black Santa Claus.
In the Gazette story, McIntosh said he was proud of what he was doing. "We're really having a good time," he said. "This is the way I like to live." That same year, Gov. David Pryor declared Christmas Eve "Say McIntosh Day." Pryor wound up presenting the signed proclamation to a roomful of reporters without the guest of honor because he couldn't find McIntosh — who was, it turned out, at the Arkansas Baptist College gym arranging toys for that day's giveaway to needy children.
It seems those early sips of attention planted a seed in McIntosh, showing him how the interest of the press could be shaped to his will. The next year, he pulled the first of many media stunts, dumping empty beer and whiskey bottles in the offices of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to protest the on-premises sale of liquor near his restaurant. The following year he made the paper again by interrupting a dinner honoring volunteerism to make the point that no blacks were being honored. From there, he was off to the races.
By the mid-1980s, the library's alphabetized, indexed list of newspaper stories containing the name "Robert 'Say' McIntosh" often runs a full page of tiny type. He hounded Bill Clinton mercilessly about various policies and personal shortcomings (reportedly while on the payroll of assorted Clinton-haters), filling his flyers with scandalous allegations about Clinton. In January 1984, McIntosh attempted to chop down a tree planted in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. at the state Capitol with an axe. He posed as a bum on Pleasant Valley Drive in 1982 to prove that people ignored the public drunk. When the Ku Klux Klan came to town, he threw them a barbecue. In July 1981, he hung himself from a cross at the Capitol to protest Gov. Frank White's refusal to meet with him, and almost died from heat stroke.
Interspersed with his reporter-bait stunts were glimpses of his personal demons: bankruptcy, arrests, assaults, his hair-trigger propensity to let his fists do the talking; a 1999 incident in which he allegedly doused his son with a pan of scalding grease. Scattered amongst it all is what I suspect to be the whole point of why McIntosh tried to stay in the papers in the first place: his attempts to make blacks care about their neighborhoods; to curb black-on-black crime; to bankroll his program to provide free breakfasts to hungry children on their way to school.
Seen Big Picture, it adds up to the portrait of a man curving the media in the direction he wanted it to go, for ends both selfish and philanthropic; helping sell papers full of stories about the crazy black man from Little Rock who would say or do any damn fool thing, and getting stories about his personal crusades printed in return. Robert "Say" McIntosh, high school dropout and street-fighting man: bending the news cycle of a whole city through pressure and the steam heat of his passion.
Tommy McIntosh said that he has always been proud of his brother for standing up. Tommy is the baby of the McIntosh family's 11 children, 7 girls and 4 boys. He was the first child born in Little Rock after the McIntosh family moved to Central Arkansas from Mississippi County, and the first born in a hospital. He said his father usually worked two or three jobs to provide for his family, sometimes doing landscaping in the evenings after working all day.
"My father worked at Kroger from 6 to 3 and then he would go to Big Rock — that was Minnesota Mining down on Arch Street — and he would work from 5 to 5," McIntosh said. "He did that, and you know what? We ended up getting our first house. That's what he did to get it. He'd be driving, and he'd go to sleep at the stop sign. I'd nudge him and he'd go on."
McIntosh said that along with a strong work ethic, his father and mother instilled in their children another quality that would come into play in Robert McIntosh's life as an activist: a belief that it was always right to stand up for yourself, especially if you wanted respect. To illustrate his point, Tommy McIntosh recalls an incident when he was in the fourth grade in which a man called his father "boy."
"My father looked at him — he was 40 years old, I never will forget it — and he said: 'I'm 40 years old. How old do you have to be before you're a man?' " McIntosh said. "That's when my father was working at Kroger, and [the man] called my father 'Mr. McIntosh' from that day on."
Tommy said that Robert was the most even-tempered and hardest to provoke of all the McIntosh children, a trait he shared with their father. He said that made the incidents in which Robert was involved in physical fights as an adult a bit shocking to him.
"I think he wanted to prove a point," Tommy said. "He tried to show other people that you stand up for what you believe, no matter what it is. If you believe it, you stand up for it, and don't back down off of it. A lot of people took it wrong, but that's what he was doing. I believe to this day the reason things are as they are is because people just sit back and let it happen. We let things just happen — all people, not just black people."
Tommy said that one of the reasons his brother was able to say and do the things he did was because he always worked for himself, and didn't have to worry about losing his job. Though he said his brother's restaurant business went "up and down" because of his outspokenness — and that the black community was often as displeased with Robert as the white community over the things he did — respect was always more important than money to Robert.
Tommy said that the proof his brother was often right lies in the fact that many of the things he tried to do — from cleaning up the community to feeding poor children free breakfasts to help them do better in school — are considered common and accepted today.
"What my brother was trying to do was to try and teach people that they need to work for themselves and they need to learn to stand up," he said. "If you stand up, you might encourage someone else to stand. That's one of the things I appreciate that my brother did: he stood. A lot of it, people considered foolishness. But if you go back and think about it, it made a difference. I really do believe that one day, he's going to be considered, in a breath, a black leader here in Little Rock. One day, people will speak of him and the things he did and won't be laughing about it."
Earnest Franklin was Say McIntosh's best friend in his teen-age years and serves as the spokesman for McIntosh's "Say Stop the Violence" campaign. He said that even the more flamboyant things McIntosh did were, at their core, always about bringing attention to problems in the black community. Franklin and McIntosh became friends around 1962, when both were working as waiters at Franke's. McIntosh was always dressed to the nines when he wasn't at work, Franklin remembers, sometimes changing clothes two or three times a day. He said McIntosh got the nickname "Say," because of his tendency to get loud during arguments. "They'd say: 'Say, say, say, say, hold it!' " Franklin said. "That's really the only way you could calm him down because he's always been a real hyper person who doesn't mind fighting. If you push him in a corner, he's coming out."
In the early days of their friendship, Franklin said, he and McIntosh were only interested in the things all young men seem to be concerned with: girls, nightclubs, having a good time and looking sharp. Their work as waiters brought them in contact with Arkansas's high rollers, helping McIntosh build some of the contacts he'd call on later in life. McIntosh's philanthropic streak started early; he started collecting toys for the needy in the early 1970s. Franklin said that it was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, however, that turned McIntosh's eye toward trying to be a force for change.
"At that particular point, that's when he started getting involved," Franklin said. "He'd had a chance to meet executive people — lawyers like Bill Walker and Sonny Walker, and all those type of men — who would say 'Hey man, don't take no whatever.' They endorsed him whenever he would get into it. People like Dr. [Jerry] Jewell and others that knew him would try to help him because of his kind heart."
Franklin said that McIntosh often served as a voice to express the feelings of more well-connected men in the black community. "They couldn't act out like him, but Say, somebody like him (would say): 'I'll go down there and say it! I'll go down and stand on the chief's desk!' " Franklin said. "We knew all those people, firsthand. As the old saying is always said: 'Boy, if you'll keep your feet out of the grave, I can keep you out of the pen!' "
While hard proof of those relationships isn't the kind of thing anybody would have written down, McIntosh did seem to have angels on his shoulder during all his long years as a political gadfly and activist, finding funding to re-open his famous restaurant time and again despite financial difficulties, and repeatedly dodging serious jail time and penalties for various incidents, both personal and political. A January 1984 story in the Arkansas Gazette marveled over the fact that he'd only been fined a total of $1 for his last seven arrests.
Franklin said that McIntosh told him in later years that at least some of his most colorful run-ins with politicians were actually paying gigs, with McIntosh compensated well to serve as a foil or "create a scene."
"A lot of that stuff he was doing, most of the time, he was getting paid to do it," Franklin said. "It wasn't an act out of his own character or just being mean. It was just something for publicity ... It was a political thing — just to show a racial [angle]. But none of that is within his heart anywhere. He's kind to everybody."
Franklin's recollections bring to mind one of the most famous incidents of McIntosh's career: the June 1990 episode in which McIntosh punched out political candidate Ralph Forbes. McIntosh had scheduled a press event with Forbes on KARK, Ch. 4, in which he said he said he would endorse Forbes — a KKK sympathizer and former devotee of the American Nazi Party — as a candidate for lieutenant governor. While McIntosh did eventually give that endorsement, he first slugged Forbes several times in the head on live TV, later telling reporters it was because Forbes had tried to stop him from burning the American flag.
Forbes filed assault charges. During the trial, McIntosh told the court that the whole incident was a put-on designed to get white sympathy votes for the unpopular candidate, who eventually lost the Republican nomination in a landslide to Kenneth "Muskie" Harris.
"The do-gooder people from the media were out to get him," McIntosh told the judge. "I told him that we needed to do something to wake up the rednecks who would vote for him if I hit him." McIntosh testified that Forbes' original idea had been for Forbes to kick him, but McIntosh said he nixed the idea because blacks would never believe he'd allowed that to happen unanswered. Several times during the trial, McIntosh pleaded with Forbes to admit that it had all been a publicity stunt, but McIntosh was found guilty, fined $500 and given a 30-day suspended sentence.
Whatever the truth is regarding that incident and a dozen others, Franklin said that most of the money McIntosh ever made, along with nearly every dime McIntosh squeezed out of his restaurant, was eventually plowed back into his good works in the black community. "You'll hear a lot of the 30-year-olds or 40-year-olds who'll say, 'Yeah, I remember my first Santa Claus — my first black Santa Claus — gave me this and gave me that.' " Franklin said. "He couldn't go out there on his own if he didn't have some kind of political back up, you see what I'm saying? Those folks kept money in his pocket. When he got ready, they'd help him with financing for his business."
While reporters are often some of the more media-shy folks you'll ever want to meet, if you want to understand Say McIntosh's homebuilt publicity machine, you've got to talk to the folks who covered him. Though Arkansas Times always hesitates to quote one of our own, one of those with undeniable insight on Say McIntosh is Max Brantley. Now senior editor at The Arkansas Times, Brantley served as the city desk editor of the Arkansas Gazette from 1986 to 1990, and often wrote about McIntosh's escapades. His personal stories about Say McIntosh (including one in which McIntosh reportedly threatened to whip his ass because Brantley wrote that he preferred somebody else's sweet potato pie over McIntosh's) are fairly epic. He said that while McIntosh was not thoroughly stable — a fact which made him an imperfect role model — he carefully styled himself as a "media phenomenon."
"He knew how to get attention," Brantley said. "The newspapers would say: 'We're just not going to cover this son-of-a-bitch again.' But then he would do something photogenic — which he knew the TV stations would run no matter what — and then it's out there, so what do you do? You have to say, 'Oh, goddamn it. I'll write something about this son-of-a-bitch again.' If there's an editor in this town who didn't swear at some point that he'd never cover McIntosh again and was forced to do it, I don't know who that was."
Brantley said that the number of stunts McIntosh pulled was a product of his energy. He adds that the flyers McIntosh posted around town — information-dense, near-slanderous, two-dimensional rants about whatever policy or politician was in his crosshairs that week — illustrate one thing that McIntosh had going for him: He was "judgment proof," simply because he didn't own anything.
Former Arkansas Democrat Associate Editor Meredith Oakley, who started with the Democrat in 1976 and stayed there until she resigned this year, agrees that McIntosh's instability muted his power as a role model. While she said that McIntosh did good works in the community in his early years, "his ego got in the way."
"He was largely a creature of his own good deeds and the media," Oakley said. "Over the years he was very erratic... he attacked [Pulaski County Prosecutor] Lee Munson at one point. He attacked Bob Starr." In her last exchange with McIntosh around 15 years ago, Oakley said that she had to threaten to call security to keep the exchange from getting physical, the only time in her 30-plus year career that she ever felt physically threatened on the job.
"He did good in his early years, but then he went a little nuts," she said. "There was, in his later years, a news blackout on him. The local media just wouldn't cover him because he was pamphleteering, kind of like [evangelical preacher Tony] Alamo, except he was personally attacking people ... he just became totally untrustworthy and didn't do much good anymore."
Oakley said that while McIntosh started out with good intentions, the fact that he "crossed a lot of lines and offended a lot of people," means he will likely be known more for being The Sweet Potato Pie King than a civic leader to future generations.
"He was just a poor, uneducated person who tried to do good," she said. "I don't know what was driving him. I like to think it was out of the goodness of his heart. He wouldn't be the first person to use the media with malice aforethought, but I do think he could be accused of that. I think he really did start with his heart in the right place."
Even those who butted heads with McIntosh couldn't help but like him for his tenacity. Former Pulaski County Sheriff and U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson had his share of dealings with McIntosh over the years (including an incident in which he threatened to take a chainsaw to a cross McIntosh had intended to crucify himself on in front of the sheriff's office), but says he bears him no ill will. Or, as Robinson put it: "He's not on my Enemies List."
"Say, back then, was sort of a crusader," Robinson said. "In his own mind, what he did was altruistic and for the right purposes. Most of the time it was, but sometimes it wasn't. He'd let certain people influence him and talk him into things he probably shouldn't have done, but I can't say one bad thing about Say McIntosh ... I've been victimized by him, but like I said, I don't have any ill will toward him or hard feelings whatsoever."
At the corner of MLK Boulevard and Daisy Gatson Bates Drive, there's a field of white crosses, each one representing another person killed in Little Rock. Say McIntosh and other community leaders have been putting them up there since the early 1990s. There were years during the Bad Old Days of Little Rock's gang wars when the field was lined row on row. These days, thank God, there's only a relative few. This is where I met Say McIntosh, his wife Derotha, and his friend Earnest Franklin in person for the first time.
With the punishing heat of late summer beating down and Mrs. McIntosh holding a black umbrella over Say's head to spare him some of the sun, we snapped a few quick photos, then adjourned to Robinson's Mortuary at the corner of 12th and MLK to chat in the air conditioning. Throughout most of our conversation, McIntosh sat silently off to one side, speaking with pained difficulty only when asked a direct question. He doesn't make speeches these days, though the mischievous grin and twinkle in his eye when you ask him about his various run-ins of yore lets you know that he's still in there.
On Tommy Robinson: "Tommy Robinson mistreated the black men who came to his county jail. I was just standing up for my rights, to show I wasn't scared of him."
On the field of crosses: "Black people was killing each other. I wanted to stop it. We had 170 something black people killed in '93 I believe, and we've got it down to 21. Those were bad days."
On Arkansas Democrat editor John R. Starr, who was prone to calling him "McIntrash": "He would write an article that dissed me, and I wanted to make him eat his paper."
Derotha McIntosh has been married to Say for 15 years, and serves as the executive director of "Say Stop the Violence," a non-profit he started early in his career as an activist. She said that even she didn't always understand the reasoning behind some of the things McIntosh did. When he decided to publicly burn the American flag, for example, she asked him why he wanted to do it. "He said, 'It's not that I don't like the flag,' " she recalls. " 'My question to the people is: What is that particular item, that flag, doing for you? How is it helping you and us with our worldly problems in the community? If you honor it and give it the glory, what is the return on that?' At that time, it was a little big for me. I had to process it. It was about his community — trying to get them to see: Is this giving you a return? Is this changing anything that's in front of you that's bad?"
Mrs. McIntosh said that her husband's legacy is people remembering him for giving them their first doll or bike, or for feeding hungry people when they didn't have enough to eat. "He came into areas that were most needing something: attention, love somebody that cared, or some food," she said. "He let them know: you are somebody, and if you're not something to yourself or your parents, you're something to me, and I care about you. That was a seed he planted in many little kids' lives, black and white."
Franklin said that he and McIntosh — who he calls "The Bishop of the Streets" — still talk often whenever there's trouble in the black community in Little Rock, and still make trips down to the prison to talk with inmates about the violence that landed them there. He sees his friend as one of those who lit the spark of respect for blacks in Little Rock, though McIntosh often resorted to something more drastic than Dr. King's commitment to non-violence.
"He'd tell them: If you hit me, I'm going to hit you back," Franklin said. "Back when we were coming up in the '50s, you didn't hit a white man. You didn't cuss at a white man. Mac said, 'Them days is gone.' They knew not to get out of place with him. They didn't walk up and say: 'Hey nigger, how you doin?' No. You respect this man. It was: 'How you doing, Mr. McIntosh?' That's where he won the popularity and made the people love him. Sometimes when people know that you're not afraid, they begin to love you and you begin to have love."
McIntosh himself boils it down. He smiles, and for a second, you can see the younger man who gave the politicians and cops and reporters fits. "What I was trying to do is get black people to stand up," he said. "That's what it was all about."
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