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Revenge of the elite in Little Rock 

The city manager system and the collapse of racial moderation in Little Rock, 1955-1957.

click to enlarge ALLIES OF LABOR: Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann (second from left), Teamsters leader Odell Smith (third from left), attorney and political strategist Henry Woods (far right) and others in 1956. - COURTESY OF THE AMALGAMATED TRANSIT UNION
  • Courtesy of the Amalgamated Transit Union
  • ALLIES OF LABOR: Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann (second from left), Teamsters leader Odell Smith (third from left), attorney and political strategist Henry Woods (far right) and others in 1956.

On March 2, 1956, when the first buses of Little Rock's new union-owned Citizens Coach Company hit the streets, they did so without the traditional Jim Crow signs that directed black passengers to the back. Moreover, the company never instructed its drivers to enforce segregation ordinances. This peaceful integration of the buses was kept quiet, probably known only to the trade unionists who organized the company, their allies within the civil rights community and the working-class folk who relied on public transportation. Little Rock's Union Labor Bulletin, though, justified integration more broadly on the day the buses started rolling: "Our Heavenly Father loves all the people he made .... The AFLCIO being under Him ... realizes this fact. Therefore, our group eternally teaches that there should be no discrimination because of creed, color or placement."

Seven weeks later, when the integration of the buses became public, segregationists blamed the alliance of union and black leaders that had recently asserted itself in municipal politics. The previous fall had seen labor and black voters rejecting the city's old-guard leadership and electing Woodrow Mann mayor and a sympathetic majority to the city council. These officials then encouraged the anti-union Capitol Transit to surrender its charter, handed the franchise to the union-owned Citizens Coach Company, and allowed the bus integration. The Arkansas Recorder, the city's segregationist weekly, insisted that Citizens Coach should be renamed "AFL-CIO-NAACP-CCC" as a reminder of who controlled the city.

The clout of the labor-black political coalition also frustrated the city's old guard who traditionally controlled municipal politics and saw itself as a natural aristocracy. Alarmed that its challengers wielded enough influence to drive out Capitol Transit, capitalize Citizens Coach and secure the franchise to operate it, the old guard pushed for the adoption of the city manager system that would remove Mann and his allies from office and restore elite rule. Those segregationists who were not members of the old guard readily joined the city manager crusade. The approval of the city manager system in 1956 represents the triumph of an alliance of elites and segregationists over the labor-black coalition. Much like Arkansas's disfranchisement measures of the 1890s, including 1891 ballot reform measures and the introduction of a poll tax in 1892, Little Rock's city manager system curtailed a biracial working-class insurgency, ensured that political power remained in elite hands and was helped along by virulent racists.

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Little Rock's labor-black alliance dates to 1948. That year, both groups helped elect Democrat Sidney McMath governor and defeat attempts to swing Arkansas into the Dixiecrat column. The alliance was re-energized when McMath ran for the U.S. Senate. McMath worked to make sure his African-American supporters purchased poll tax receipts before Oct. 31, 1953, to vote in 1954's Democratic primary by securing resources from the national labor federations to qualify black voters. The Congress of Industrial Organization dispatched its top black organizer who helped I.S. McClinton and Harry Bass form the Little Rock-based Citizens' Committee to lead the effort. The labor federations purchased poll tax receipts in bulk for the Citizens' Committee to distribute to black voters, increasing the number of black Arkansas voters to a record 65,000.

Although McMath lost his Senate race, Little Rock's labor-black coalition rushed to help Orval Faubus, a McMath protege, in the runoff for governor. Faubus' point man in Pulaski County was Odell Smith, the local Teamsters leader who ran Arkansas's joint AFL and CIO political operation. As the runoff neared, Smith met with unionists and black activists at the Grady Manning Hotel to organize the final drive for Faubus. He handed out thousands of pink "tickets" listing the coalition's endorsed candidates that were distributed to voters on Election Day. This and similar efforts paid off. Daisy Bates later credited "labor, Negroes, and liberals" for Faubus's victory — a bitter irony, considering the governor is today remembered for the opportunistic alliance he struck with segregationists just a few years later during the 1957 Central High crisis.

The emergence of a powerful, union-led, biracial working-class coalition worried Little Rock's old guard. These businessmen and professionals had long controlled the city. At the core of their worldview was a faith that education, experience and virtue had placed them atop the civic hierarchy. These were men who did not tolerate challengers and could marshal tremendous resources in defense of what they saw as their civic prerogatives. Rather than exercising power overtly, the old guard operated discreetly, leaving office-holding to a few members and working through organizations like the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.

Conflicts between the old guard and the labor-black coalition erupted several times before the establishment of the integrated bus system. In March 1955, Odell Smith's Teamsters led a strike of some 200 delivery drivers (mostly white) and production workers (mostly black) against Terry Dairy. The dispute revolved around wages. Production workers, who were exempt from overtime regulations, earned less than the federal minimum wage for their 54-hour week. The Teamsters demanded a 20 percent increase for the lowest paid workers and overtime pay. After the dairy rejected any wage increase, the Teamsters walked out. The strike was acrimonious from the start, with reports of threats and harassment coming from both sides, and settled into a battle of attrition.

In June 1955, a strike of bus drivers and mechanics against Capitol Transit joined the Terry Dairy dispute on the front pages. Members of Division 704 of the Amalgamated Association of Street, Electric Railway and Motor Coach Employees sought higher wages, noting that Little Rock drivers averaged 40 cents an hour less than the industry average. Capitol Transit refused to negotiate with Division 704. Like the Terry Dairy conflict, the bus drivers' strike settled into a stalemate marked by bombings and gunfire that struck terror but did not result in any deaths or serious injuries.

Most public officials and politicians sided with the striking drivers and mechanics. North Little Rock's city council threatened revocation of Capitol Transit's franchise if it did not negotiate, and several Little Rock aldermen voiced similar sentiments. Aldermen in both cities criticized the employment of "scabs," insisting that these men could not be trusted around women and children. Division 704 hired former Governor McMath and his political strategist, Henry Woods, to represent it.

Initially about wages, the bus strike evolved into a conflict over who would govern the city. Only Little Rock Mayor Pratt Remmel, a Republican member of the old guard, expressed sympathy for Capitol Transit. Like others of his class, Remmel had long been hostile to organized labor. In 1946, he had helped establish the Arkansas Free Enterprise Association, which sought to roll back the substantial gains Arkansas trade unionists had made during World War II. The federal government had encouraged wartime unionization, anxious to ensure labor peace in the construction trades and at the defense factories across Central and South Arkansas. When the war ended, Remmel joined with other business leaders to warn that the "infiltration of union labor leaders, union labor bosses, union labor policies and union labor practices" threatened Arkansas's postwar prosperity.

Little Rock trade unionists concluded that Remmel was the main impediment to resolving the bus dispute, and they got behind Woodrow Mann, an insurance executive challenging him in the November 1955 election. Mann, a political novice, allowed Odell Smith and Henry Woods to run his campaign, and they cast the election as a fight between downtown businessmen and working people. The campaign contrasted the poor roads, parks and services in working-class neighborhoods to the amenities found downtown and on the affluent west side. Smith promised that Mann's election would free the city from the grasp of the Chamber of Commerce, make it possible to settle the ongoing strikes, and "return democratic rule at City Hall on behalf of the little people."

Remmel ran an unenthusiastic campaign. As the incumbent, he did little more than present himself as a capable administrator and list his accomplishments. Arkansas's segregationist movement joined the old guard in backing Remmel. Little Rock's most influential segregationist, Amis Guthridge, raised money for Remmel. After the campaign, Remmel thanked Finos Phillips, chair of the White Citizens' Councils of Arkansas, for his assistance, and Curt Copeland, a prominent segregationist who trafficked in tales of black sexual aggressiveness, praised Remmel as "among the outstanding men of the state."

There were also contests for city council seats. The most acrimonious battles involved two incumbent aldermen who were also trade unionists: James Griffey (Ward 4) and Arthur Corley (Ward 2). The pair were outspoken in their support for Division 704 and had tangled with the Chamber of Commerce over downtown parking and sanitation. The Arkansas Gazette reported that it was an "open secret" that the chamber recruited Griffey and Corley's challengers and managed their campaigns.

To mobilize voters, Little Rock labor employed the methods that trade unionists had perfected elsewhere. Union members and spouses recorded the name and address of each person who had paid the poll tax on an index card and sorted the cards by precinct and block. Shoeboxes full of cards were distributed to block captains who would contact every eligible voter on the block to determine if he or she was for Mann, Remmel or undecided, marking each card. The captain then lobbied the undecideds.

Mann began Election Day at a 7 a.m. rally sponsored by Division 704. There, 500 trade unionists and spouses ate doughnuts, heard speeches and prepared for the get-out-the-vote operation. Then block captains used the index cards to make sure that Mann supporters and the undecideds cast their votes, running phone banks and dispatching drivers. I.S. McClinton assisted the campaign in black neighborhoods.

The Arkansas Gazette acknowledged that "overwhelming blocs of labor and negro votes" had carried Mann, Griffey and Corley to victory. But both daily papers suggested that Mann voters had been manipulated by Democratic Party leaders and local bosses. The Union Labor Bulletin took exception to this coverage, noting that economic elites had long portrayed working-class voters as irresponsible to justify their claims to power. The labor paper warned that the two dailies were enemies of working people and would "try to turn a victory of the have-nots into a gain, and a big gain, for the haves."

After Mann and the aldermen took office in January 1956, the dispute between Division 704 and Capitol Transit came to a head. Meeting with elected officials, Smith, Woods and McMath pushed the city to revoke Capitol Transit's charter and operate the buses as a municipal service. Expecting that an attempt to start a new bus company would take several months, Capitol Transit threatened to cease operations and forfeit its charter unless the aldermen immediately approved a new agreement that delayed tax payments and increased fares. The company's demand amounted to blackmail — extend our franchise now or we will leave the city without bus service for months.

The gambit failed. Little Rock and North Little Rock councils had little choice but to accept Capitol Transit's forfeiture and give the bus franchise to Division 704. Signing a new agreement, especially one with concessions, with Capitol Transit was politically untenable. Labor's preferred solution, municipal ownership, was also off the table. Mann had campaigned against municipal ownership, saying it would create a political mess. Most aldermen had hoped that an outside operator would take over the system, but efforts to find such a company failed. Granting the franchise to Division 704 was no one's ideal solution, but it was the best one available.

Division 704's attorneys, Woods and McMath, quickly organized Citizens Coach. Drivers and mechanics drew on their pensions and pledged their unemployment compensation to finance Citizens Coach. Additional investments came from unions and labor officials. All told, Citizens Coach's capitalization amounted to $240,000. With this, the company purchased used buses, rented maintenance facilities, recruited a manager, hired the striking drivers and announced that operations would begin on March 2, 1956.

Citizen Coach buses were integrated from the start. The Arkansas Gazette later reported that the coaches entered service with "no segregation signs in them" and the "drivers never had any orders to enforce segregated seating." The quiet integration of Citizens Coach was in keeping with the approach of Smith, Woods and McMath. They were committed to civil rights for moral and political reasons. But they also realized that a full-throated embrace of racial integration would alienate many white trade unionists, who, like most white Arkansans, supported white supremacy. Thus, they integrated the buses without fanfare.

The low-key integration of the buses was also consistent with Mann's approach to race relations. Working closely with McClinton, the mayor quietly removed signs that read "Colored Do Not Drink Out of Fountain" from city hall, doubled the number of black police officers and appointed African Americans to city boards.

Responding to national events, Citizens Coach announced that its buses had integrated seating.

The announcement, though, provoked little immediate controversy. Reporters from both dailies rode the buses and witnessed little to cause concern. A few African Americans sat near the front and some whites doubled up to prevent blacks from sitting next to them, but there were no incidents. The riders they interviewed voiced little concern about the arrangement.

Segregationist outrage was met by indifference. Led by Amis Guthridge, Little Rock's segregationists put the blame on Mann and the aldermen who refused to extend Capitol Transit's charter. Guthridge, insisting that black riders had been harassing whites, lobbied both city councils to return Capitol Transit buses to the streets but received no satisfaction. That summer, segregationists vowed to punish Mann and "elect leaders who will prevent race mixing on city buses."

Although most of Little Rock's old guard probably shared segregationists' racial animus, they had another reason to be disturbed about the CCC. For them, Citizens Coach exemplified the labor-black alliance's threat to local enterprises. Shortly after Capitol Transit creased operations, Terry Dairy's owners — still battling the Teamsters — sold the company to Borden. Thus, what had been two of the city's most visible local concerns had fallen victim to a powerful labor movement and a hostile political environment. It is little wonder that one businessman called unions "the most sinister influence in the [city's] political life."

No one expressed these worries as well as Johnny Wells, the editor/publisher of the Arkansas Recorder, which catered to both segregationists and businessmen. Wells explained that union leaders working with blacks had mobilized "the biggest bloc of controlled votes in the County" and become the "overlords of City Hall." For Wells, this coalition had stood the natural order on its head: "the alliance between labor union officers and Negro politicians ... [has] made second class citizens of a great number of voters .... 'Labor' had its tickets; the Negro political bosses had theirs. Cars were busy hauling to the polls thousands of persons who had no knowledge of the candidates or issues. Suffrage in the hands of such is a hazard." He urged readers to protect the city from this menace.

The old guard's efforts to curtail the labor-black alliance began in July 1956 when a Pulaski County grand jury launched a high-profile investigation of public corruption aimed at the governor's mansion and the city halls of both Little Rock and North Little Rock. Labor and its allies regarded Pulaski County grand juries as simply tools of the old guard. McMath later recalled that they were "chosen from the 'higher echelons' of Little Rock's business community."

For weeks, the city's daily newspapers ran sensational stories, detailing the leaked grand jury testimonies of those summoned to testify. The papers were filled with tales of bribery, cronyism, pettiness, incompetency and fraud. But when the grand jury issued its final report in September, there was more smoke than fire. The jurors found little evidence of criminal activity. The only indictments were of two salesmen who had tried to bribe a purchasing agent. The inability to indict public officials did not prevent the grand jury from issuing a scathing report, alleging widespread "bossism" in Little Rock and insisting that only the adoption of the city manager system would purify the city.

The grand jury's report, though, defined bossism as political activity on the part of organized labor. The main section, "Secrecy and Boss-Rule," focused on "the bus situation." The jurors admitted that they had not closely examined the chartering of Citizens Coach, but nonetheless they used it to illustrate how "boss rule" had corrupted Little Rock. Rather than alleging bribery, the report emphasized the closed-door negotiations that preceded the aldermen's public votes on the charter and asserted that labor had "dictated" this action. The section's conclusion made it clear that the jurors considered labor's political activities to be the real issue: "Financing political campaigns and dictating to elected officials is not a proper function of labor unions."

The jurors prescribed the city manager system as the antidote to labor's power. They explained that a city manager would serve "with no political obligations" and administer the municipal government on the basis of expertise. Instead of a 10-person city council elected by wards every two years, the new system would be controlled by seven directors to be elected at large every four years. Whereas each alderman received $1,200 annually for time spent on city business, directors would serve without pay. The city manager system promised to take power from those popular at the ward level and give it to those with the resources to win citywide elections and perform unpaid work.

Trade unionists derided the grand jury's report as a hatchet job. Odell Smith explained that the jurors had "hint[ed] at things" for which they could marshal no evidence and disputed the claim that union officials controlled the mayor and aldermen. Smith admitted that "certainly labor works to elect its friends" before castigating the jurors for implying that there was something sinister about unionists exercising their rights as citizens.

While the labor leaders panned the grand jury report, Mann was stung by it. The jurors found no evidence of criminality in his administration, but they contended that he was unfit for office. They noted that Mann had not yet repaid his campaign loans and claimed his indebtedness made him susceptible to corruption. Only those able to self-finance a campaign, the jurors suggested, should serve as mayor. The jurors' more serious complaints concerned the type of petty corruption that was common in Arkansas. They were outraged by Mann's acceptance, with the aldermen's permission, of a gift of office furniture. Seeking vindication, Mann called for the people of Little Rock to vote on whether to adopt the city manager system that the Arkansas General Assembly had approved for the city in 1921. Angering his allies in the labor and black communities, he scheduled the vote for November, hoping the short notice would prevent the old guard from organizing an effective campaign.

Mann's hope was quickly disabused. The city manager campaign was coordinated by the Good Government Committee, which was formed by August Engle, Arkansas Democrat publisher; J. Ned Heiskell, Arkansas Gazette publisher; J.V. Satterfield, a bank president; and Stonewall Jackson Beauchamp, a prominent businessman. The four invited 200 members of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce to an organizational meeting. The 150 attendees pledged the necessary resources for the campaign and designated Clyde Lowry, a chamber mainstay, to oversee the effort. Lowry explained that the committee was nonpartisan, its members placed the city's well-being over personal agendas and the city manager system would benefit the entire population. One committee member, though, confessed privately that the organization's purpose was to get rid of Mann, who he called a "labor puppet," and "labor ridden graft corrupted" officials.

Little Rock's daily papers functioned as public relations arms of the Good Government Committee's campaign, providing what one supporter called "a chorus of journalistic endorsement." Each paper emphasized that the grand jury had recommended the city manager system and ran dozens of front-page articles extolling its benefits, arguing that it had transformed poorly run cities into models of efficiency, saved taxpayers money and ended corruption. The papers also assured readers that the General Assembly would later remove the acknowledged defects in the 1921 city manager plan and make it workable. Initially, the papers echoed the committee's claim that the move to implement the city manager system was driven by chronic mismanagement rooted in the mayor-alderman structure rather than animosity toward Mann. But after Mann campaigned against the city manager system, the papers transformed the vote into a referendum on the unpopular mayor.

The Good Government Committee avoided discussing racial issues for fear that it would divide members. Membership included racial moderates who had tangled with unions — Harry Ashmore and Fred Darragh — as well as several people who would later lead the resistance to the integration of Central High. Committee member Willie Oates helped create T.J. Raney High School, a private school that sought to use public monies to educate white children in a segregated environment. Fellow committee member Ed McKinley won election to the school board on a segregationist slate and helped engineer the firing of 44 educators seen as sympathetic to integration. Most Good Government Committee members probably favored white supremacy but hesitated to associate with segregationist groups.

Opposition to the city-manager system came from a coalition that the Arkansas Recorder described as "labor union officers, city hall politicians, and Negro factions." Labor formed the Committee for Democratic Government to defend the mayor-aldermen system, but it had few resources to devote to the campaign. Instead, labor concentrated its efforts on four measures appearing on November's statewide ballot — opposing the three segregationist proposals and managing the campaign to abolish the poll tax. When it did act, the group had trouble getting its message to voters. It tried to buy television and radio air time, but stations told them that slots were unavailable. Lowry refused to debate the group's leaders, and the city's papers mentioned the group's events but rarely covered them. Similarly, the papers noted that black political organizations like McClinton's Arkansas Democratic Voters Association would be discussing the city manager proposal, but never reported on what happened.

The one Committee for Democratic Government event that the papers could hardly ignore featured Mann and the labor-black coalition's allies. At this rally, Mann and the officeholders portrayed the city manager movement as a Chamber of Commerce-orchestrated power grab. Alderman Griffey explained that the chamber championed the city manager system because it knew "it could control the Board of Directors." Alderman Corley asked voters "to keep the city government and not give it to the Chamber of Commerce." He added, "If Pratt Remmel had been reelected we never would have had this trouble. But a man was elected they couldn't run and the Chamber of Commerce does not like it." City Attorney O.D. Longstreth also questioned the elite's newfound enthusiasm for municipal restructuring, noting that it only occurred after the election of an administration in which "labor had a chance to be heard." Mann, who had angered his allies by calling for the vote, simply accused the chamber of attempting "to overthrow democratic government."

The November 1956 elections were an unmitigated disaster for the labor-black coalition. Little Rock voters approved the city manager system by a 2-to-1 margin. Once the election became a referendum on the unpopular Mann, the outcome was all but assured. Additionally, voters approved the three segregationist measures by substantial margins, and labor's proposal to abolish the poll tax went down to defeat. The labor-black coalition was in disarray.

The city manager system was not implemented immediately. In early 1957, the legislature worked out the problems in the city manager plan, crafted in 1921. After it did so, Mann went to court, arguing that the legislature had so fundamentally altered the structure approved by voters the previous fall that another vote was necessary. The Arkansas Supreme Court, though, ruled against Mann, ordering the election of a board of directors to proceed. That vote was scheduled for November 1957.

Until then, Mann remained mayor, and his lame-duck status exacerbated the Central High crisis that began in September. As protestors surrounded Central High, Mann sought to mobilize local resources to protect the black students. He asked the fire department to back up the police and, if necessary, disperse protestors with water hoses, but the chief refused. Mann called the Pulaski County sheriff for help, but the sheriff snubbed him. Mann could not even trust the police chief, an avowed segregationist. It is impossible to know the degree to which Mann's lame-duck status made it easier for the sheriff and fire chief to shirk their duties, but they, like the police chief, realized Mann would be gone in November. Unable to marshal local forces, Mann asked President Eisenhower to send troops.

After the old guard and segregationists pushed through the city manager system, they parted ways. Tensions revolved around priorities: One placed elite control at the top; the other white supremacy. The relationship worsened as agitation concerning Central High increased. The old guard had made sure that Hall High, where most of them sent their children, would remain lily white, and segregationists suspected that elite enthusiasm for segregation at Central might wane. The final break came in October 1957 — the 101st Airborne had already arrived — after the Good Government Committee nominated a slate for Little Rock's new board of directors. The official stance of the committee's candidates on school integration was one of cowardice; they refused to take a position, presumably fearful that doing so might threaten elite control. Finding the Good Government Committee slate to be insufficiently committed to Jim Crow, the segregationists nominated their own candidates.

In the year before nine black students entered Central High, the old guard-segregationist partnership kneecapped the city's only political movement working to promote integration. The politics of racial moderation embraced by Smith, McMath, Woods and Mann became untenable. Faubus saw the shifting landscape and needed to find a constituency to buoy his ambitions. His embrace of segregation was a deal with the devil that empowered racists and sullied Little Rock's reputation but furthered his career. The old guard certainly did not force Faubus to join with segregationists in 1957 any more than fears of the labor-black coalition required them to make racial moderation nearly impossible.

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