Charles Lindbergh George (1927–2017)
Charles Lindbergh George was a coach, teacher, and school administrator who had a brief and unusual career in politics in the era after the 1957–1959 Little Rock (Pulaski County) school desegregation crisis. In the midst of a spectacularly corrupt state legislative election in 1960, George ran as a last-minute write-in candidate against a mercurial state senator and was elected in a landslide. He served six years as a state senator, retired, and then resurfaced in 1982 as a Democratic opponent of U.S. Representative Ed Bethune in the Second Congressional District. A poorly funded underdog, George ran a close race but lost and never ran for office again.
Charles L. George was born on May 16, 1927, in Ward (Lonoke County). His father and mother, Elijah F. George and Alberta Balding George, were farmers. He had two sisters. He went to school in Ward and briefly attended Beebe Junior College (now Arkansas State University–Beebe). He entered the U.S. Navy shortly before the end of World War II and, after the war, joined the Army Reserve, retiring thirty years later as a colonel and unit commander.
He returned to school, this time at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), and played basketball for the Arkansas Razorbacks in 1947 and 1948. He married Virginia Rose Morris in August 1948. He transferred to Arkansas State Teachers College (now University of Central Arkansas—UCA) in Conway (Faulkner County) and finished his eligibility for basketball there. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1950 and a master’s degree in 1955 at UCA.
George coached and taught in the Ward schools and served as principal for one year. He coached and taught high school in Strong (Union County) for five years and then moved to Cabot (Lonoke County), near his boyhood home. With his wife, he taught in the Cabot schools and coached the athletic teams. He served as the high school principal for four years and for one year as superintendent of schools.
Until the summer of 1960, George evinced no public interest in politics. The controversy over racial integration was raging, however, nowhere more than in the communities of neighboring Lonoke and Prairie counties, where the reigning kingpin was state Senator Jerry J. Screeton of Hazen (Prairie County), who served as Hazen’s mayor, banker, and school board president. The two counties were part of a Senate district that also included White and Woodruff counties. The district had two senators, and a “gentlemen’s agreement” allowed the two northern counties to elect one of them and the southern ones, Prairie and Lonoke, to elect the other. Lonoke and Prairie had another agreement that the second senator would alternately be from one county and then for the next term from the other. Screeton, a segregationist firebrand and orator in the Senate, was one of the authors of Amendment 44, the interposition amendment to the Arkansas Constitution, ratified in 1956, that required the state government—the governor and Arkansas General Assembly—to block any effort by the federal government to integrate schools or other public functions. The amendment followed the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 ordering the integration of public schools. Governor Orval E. Faubus used the state interposition amendment in 1957 to position National Guardsmen at Little Rock’s Central High School to prevent nine Black children from entering.
Screeton had served in the seat for the last four years of the 1940s and the last four years of the 1950s. In 1960, Screeton wanted to stay in the seat and ran again, ignoring the agreement on alternate representation between the counties. A Lonoke County politician, Joe T. Gunter of Lonoke (Lonoke County), also filed in the Democratic primaries for the seat. While voters in all four counties cast ballots, the real battle was in Lonoke and Prairie counties. In the runoff primary in August, voting was unusually heavy in the two counties, each county favoring its resident. The results were late coming in, with each county holding back on announcing or certifying the results to see how many votes were needed to put their man on top. Screeton claimed victory, and then so did Gunter. Screeton filed a lawsuit in circuit court contesting the votes from Lonoke County and asking the court to declare him the victor. The trial and appellate proceedings were front-page stories in the state newspapers for more than two months, with one side and then the other exposing irregularities in the other county’s voting. People had to pay poll taxes each year to vote in those days, and the ballot handling, particularly in primaries, was careless and deceptive in many counties where strong county officeholders—usually the sheriff or the county judge with the cooperation of the county clerk—controlled the election mechanics, including handling, counting, and storing ballots. (A constitutional amendment in 1964 ended poll taxes and established a system of permanent voter registration, which largely ended Arkansas’s long history of election manipulation.)
The election dispute went to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which declined to reverse a local court finding that Screeton probably had prevailed in all the chaos. A citizens’ group asked the court to order a new Democratic primary, but it declined.
On October 15, three weeks before the election, George announced that he was a candidate and that he would ask people in the four-county district to write his name on the ballot instead of checking the box for Screeton. (There was no Republican candidate in the general election.) George won the election handily, 7,593 to 4,592, carrying three of the four counties, while Screeton carried Prairie. A tall, soft-spoken, and self-effacing man, George said when he started his first race that he was running merely to give the people of Lonoke, Prairie, White, and Woodruff counties an opportunity to express their disgust at the election corruption that had been revealed in the Democratic primary.
In the Senate, George was quiet, rising only occasionally to question a senator about some aspect of a bill he was sponsoring and almost never engaging in the debates. He usually quietly went along with the small group of rearguard moderate senators on issues dealing with integration and the schools. He was reelected to the Senate in 1964, but after the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its “one-man, one-vote” decision (Reynolds v. Sims, 1964) requiring states to equalize the voting districts at every level of government, the state Board of Apportionment changed the districts for the 1966 election and, for the Senate, attached Lonoke County to the state’s most populous county, Pulaski, which elected five senators. George did not seek reelection in 1966.
It was also Faubus’s last term. Winthrop Rockefeller, a Republican, was elected governor in 1966. He had battled Faubus in 1964 over whether to enforce the state’s anti-gambling laws. In the 1965 legislative session, gambling interests tried and failed to get a constitutional amendment referred to voters to allow a certain amount of regulated gambling in Garland County. They tried another route—to make it illegal for the Arkansas State Police (under the governor) to make raids on gambling houses at Hot Springs (Garland County). Senator George thwarted them.
Late in the session, the Senate was voting on scores of appropriation bills late each day, usually with no discussion or debate. When the appropriation bill for the State Police for the next two years came up for a vote, as senators were milling around the chamber and anterooms, George arose at his desk and stopped the roll call. He asked the chairman of the Budget Committee, who was handling all the bills, to turn to a page near the end of the long bill and asked him what a sentence in the middle of a long, tedious paragraph meant. The chairman, Senator Robert Harvey of Swifton (Jackson County), pondered it for a minute and then shrugged. In reply, George noted that it seemed to say that the State Police could never raid gambling places at Hot Springs. Senators rushed back to their seats to find the provision. The sentence had been inserted into the bill in a closed committee meeting of the Senate. George made a motion that the sentence be stricken from the bill, and the Senate obliged on a voice vote—there was no roll call. Rockefeller was elected governor in 1966 and sent his State Police director and troopers to Hot Springs to raid casinos and destroy gambling machines. Open gambling never returned to the city until legislation passed by the legislature in 2005 and allowed to become law by Governor Mike Huckabee legalized “electronic games of skill.”
In 1982, George made another surprise political gambit. Ed Bethune, a Republican and former prosecuting attorney in White County, had been elected in 1978 to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Second District and was reelected handily in 1980. Republicans, long nearly nonexistent in Arkansas and the rest of the South, were in the ascendancy, and Republican Ronald Reagan was a popular president. George filed as a Democrat with little fanfare. He raised little money and attracted little press. A young Little Rock doctor, Vic Snyder (later the district’s congressman), volunteered in George’s campaign, such as it was. Bethune won 96,775 to 82,913, which seemed less than a resounding victory. In 1984, Bethune, recruited by Reagan and the national party, ran for the U.S. Senate against Senator David H. Pryor but was defeated decisively.
After George retired from school work, he continued to be active with the Army Reserves and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He was also a director of the Bank of Cabot and a founding member of the Rolling Hills Country Club. He became a partner in Home Lumber Company, and, after buying out his partner, he and his wife developed the Georgetown subdivision in the Greystone Golf Community of Cabot. He was inducted into the Cabot Schools Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 2009.
George died on April 18, 2017, survived by his wife, a son, and two daughters. He is buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Cabot.
For additional information:
Obituary of Charles Lindbergh George. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 20, 2017, p. 4B.
Smith, Jeffrey. “Cabot Celebrates Its Heroes of Education.” Arkansas Leader, October 17, 2009, p. 1A.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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