Minor Wallace Millwee (1901–1963)

Minor Wallace Millwee was a distinguished justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court who was the first political victim of the surge of racism that followed the showdown over school desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. After Governor Orval E. Faubus dispatched National Guardsmen to stop nine Black students from entering the high school, and President Dwight Eisenhower nationalized the guard and sent federal troops to protect the Black students in school, former state senator James D. Johnson, Arkansas’s most determined segregationist, ran against Justice Millwee in 1958, calling him “a pawn of integration,” although the judge had never expressed an opinion publicly about the issue. Johnson posited that his own election, rather than Millwee’s, would show the state’s highest court that it had to stand firm against integration.

Minor Millwee was born on June 9, 1901, in Horatio (Sevier County), the son of James Sidney Millwee and Mary Verona Wilson Millwee, both members of Sevier County’s prominent families. He attended Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County) and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville before earning a bachelor’s degree in 1924 and a law degree in 1928 at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). He practiced law in De Queen (Sevier County) for the next ten years while serving as the town’s city attorney and as a deputy prosecuting attorney for the Ninth Judicial District. In 1932, he was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly, representing Sevier County from 1933 to 1936 in the House. In 1931, he married Grace Tribble of De Queen. They had three daughters.

In 1937, Governor Carl E. Bailey appointed him to fill a circuit court vacancy in the Ninth Judicial Circuit when Judge A. P. Steel resigned, and he was reelected to the position. In 1939, Millwee presided at the trial of Commonwealth College, the leftist workers’ school in Mena (Polk County) that Orval Faubus had attended, becoming president of the student body. The college and its president were accused of violating state laws by not displaying the American flag as required of schools. Commonwealth was also accused of promoting doctrines intended to overthrow the government and of displaying an unlawful emblem, the Russian hammer and sickle. Millwee let the case go to the jury, which convicted the school of violating state laws, and the school closed. The trial and Millwee’s decision to let the case come before a jury would be debated in the U.S. Senate in 1943.

Millwee won a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court in a 1944 special election to complete the term of Justice Ben E. Carter of Texarkana (Miller County), who became ill and resigned early in his term (and soon thereafter died), and Millwee was reelected to an eight-year term in 1950. Sitting justices were rarely opposed, and the quartet of Millwee, Chief Justice Griffin Smith, and Justices George Rose Smith and J. Seaborn Holt was considered unusually scholarly and judicial.

Millwee’s opinions were always erudite and detached, sometimes with a feigned loftiness, as with cases like a dispute over the value of a bird dog. Having grown up in rural Arkansas, Millwee knew the value of a good bird dog, about $100 at the time, but in McDaniel v. Johnson (1955) he yielded to the jury’s decision to allow only $20. “The fact that we might have reached a different conclusion if we had been the triers of fact,” he wrote, “would not justify us in invading the province of a Johnson county jury.”

Johnson, who after the election would use the sobriquet “Justice Jim” for the rest of his life, had run for attorney general in 1954 and governor in 1956, thundering about the prospects of “race mixing.” Faubus, his 1956 opponent, seemed unbeatable in 1958, so Johnson filed for the one Supreme Court position on the ballot that year, Millwee’s. Reflecting on the race many years later, Johnson said he had known little about Millwee or even about the Supreme Court when he filed. The integration controversy had suddenly consumed the state, and the Supreme Court was the statewide office that seemed to be within his reach. Once on the court, Johnson said, he discovered that Millwee had been revered by the other justices as a consummate gentleman and scholar. Unlike Millwee, Johnson did not shrink from talking about issues that might come before the court and how he would vote on them. “The legislature,” Johnson declared, “has proven that it will do what the people want on the segregation issue, and governors are going to realize there is a mandate from the people of Arkansas to maintain separation of the races. I feel my election to the court will place that same feeling of responsibility on the judiciary.”

Johnson said little about Millwee during the campaign except that the judge had once told an audience in Dallas County that the U.S. Supreme Court was the final authority on all matters of law, which, of course, it was. He aligned Millwee with his old enemies, the Arkansas Gazette and its editor, Harry S. Ashmore; former Governor Sid McMath; and Henry Woods, McMath’s law partner, former executive secretary, and later a U.S. district judge.

“The brazen statement made by Minor Millwee to the people of Dallas County is further proof that he is committed to the same political philosophy as McMath, Woods, and Ashmore, who have long advocated one-world government,” Johnson said. “By serving as a flunky for these fuzzy-minded liberals, my opponent cannot render justice based upon the law.” His newspaper ads said that a vote for him was a vote for segregation, and a vote for Millwee was a vote for integration.

Millwee refrained from responding to any of the attacks. His tiny newspaper ads listed his endorsements by bar groups or simply said: “If you agree that the high office of Associate Justice should be filled by an experienced jurist with a distinguished record free of political manipulation or partisan bias, you will vote for Judge Minor W. Millwee.”

Johnson won narrowly and took the seat in January 1959. His theory that his election would affect the court’s handling of racial cases seemed to be proven quickly. During the campaign, Faubus and Attorney General Bruce Bennett had persuaded the legislature at a special session to pass a batch of bills to preserve segregation, among them Act 4, which authorized the governor to hold an election in a school district and close public schools if there were federal troops there or if concern about safety arose. The act and the school closing were challenged in Pulaski County Circuit Court, and the Supreme Court, by a vote of four to three, upheld the law and the governor’s action. The ruling was written by Millwee’s friend and former associate George Rose Smith. Ed McFaddin, the court’s most conservative justice, ironically wrote the minority opinion that declared that the act and the governor had blatantly violated the Arkansas Constitution, which said that the state had to always provide a suitable education for all children, and that the constitution gave neither the governor nor the legislature the power to deny children an education for any period of time.

The Arkansas Supreme Court, with Johnson instead of Millwee, tended to uphold the segregation laws until it became clear that those acts would always be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Johnson resigned from the court in 1966 to make another race for governor. He won the Democratic nomination but lost to Republican Winthrop Rockefeller.

After his defeat in the Democratic primary in 1958, Millwee taught law at the University of Arkansas. He died on March 31, 1963. He is buried in Redmen Cemetery in De Queen. In a tribute after his death, an editorial in the Gazette observed that he was “a real Southern gentleman” and that his defeat in 1958 was a reminder that “our collective capacity for distinguishing the real thing was weaker than we had thought.”

For additional information:
“Former Justice Dies at 60.” Arkansas Gazette, April 1, 1963, p. 2A.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 06/23/2021