Odell Smith (1904–1979)

Odell Smith was the state’s foremost trade union leader in the middle of the twentieth century, serving at various times as president of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 878, the Little Rock Central Trades Council, the Arkansas State Federation of Labor, and the Arkansas AFL-CIO. Along with his close associates Henry Woods and Sidney McMath, Smith was one of the architects of liberalism in post–World War II Arkansas. They put together a coalition that promoted high wages and consumption, generous social provision, access to educational opportunity, racial equality, and the idea that strong governments are essential for regulating capitalist enterprises.

Odell Smith was born in 1904 in Jackson, Tennessee, where his father worked as a railroad machinist. The exact date of his birth and the names of his parents remain unknown. He stayed in Jackson until 1913, when his father died of pneumonia, and his mother moved the family to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to live with relatives. Smith attended school for a short time in Little Rock but dropped out after the ninth grade to help support his mother and two younger siblings. After a few years working as a delivery boy and a soda jerk, Smith secured employment in the freight department of one of the railroads with operations in the city and joined Local 2049 of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, and Station Employees. He continued with the railroad until 1933, when he was laid off as the Great Depression worsened.

After two years of sporadic employment, Smith secured a position driving a truck. Work conditions were so poor—eighteen- to twenty-hour days, dangerous equipment, low pay—that in 1937 Smith and twenty fellow drivers banded together and secured a charter as Local 878 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Since Smith was the only member with any union experience, he became the local’s president. After being fired from trucking firms several times for his union activity, he went to work as an organizer for the union for ten dollars a week. Union organizing in Depression-era Little Rock was difficult, but in 1938 Smith secured union contracts with Southwest Transportation Company in Texarkana (Miller County) and Checker and Yellow Cab in Little Rock. World War II proved to be a boon for Smith and Local 878. Demand for war materiel and government preferences for union labor made it relatively easy to sign up members and secure contracts that provided decent wages and improved working conditions. When the war ended, Local 878 had become the largest and most powerful union in the state, with over 1,000 members.

During World War II, Odell Smith began to take a larger role in the state’s labor movement and political affairs. He was elected president of the Little Rock Central Trades Council and led the unsuccessful fight against the state’s 1943 antistrike law (which made trade unionists but not strikebreakers or management liable for any labor violence) and 1944’s “Right to Work” amendment. To increase labor’s political influence, he led the creation of the Arkansas Voters’ League in 1943, which united trade unionists and small-scale farmers into a political coalition dedicated to breaking the hold that planters, utility magnates, and bankers had over the state’s political system. Although the Arkansas Voters’ League quickly fell apart after American Federation of Labor president William Green ordered affiliated unions to withdraw, Smith continued the efforts informally.

In the postwar years, Smith forged a close relationship with Sid McMath, who served as Arkansas governor from 1949 through 1952, and his top aide, Henry Woods. The three men built a political coalition that included trade unionists, African Americans, and members of the electrical cooperatives to push for New Deal–style liberalism. Although the coalition was unable to elect McMath in 1954 to replace John McClellan in the U.S. Senate, by the mid-1950s it had elected Orval Faubus governor, Tom Gentry attorney general, and Woodrow Wilson Mann mayor of Little Rock. Building off these political successes, Arkansas’s two big labor federations—the Arkansas State Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Arkansas Industrial Union Council (CIO)—merged in 1956, forming the Arkansas AFL-CIO and electing Smith to serve as president. Smith predicted that New Deal–style liberalism would soon come to dominate the state.

Just as this labor movement and its coalition partners were beginning to see success, conservative forces mounted counterattacks on a number of fronts. In Washington DC, John McClellan launched the U.S. Senate’s investigation into corruption in the Teamsters union, which many in Arkansas understood to be payback for Smith’s role in McMath’s 1954 campaign. Ultimately, McClellan forced the AFL-CIO to expel the Teamsters, and Smith had to step down as president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO by 1958. In Little Rock, business leaders organized the Good Government Committee and implemented the city manager system; by 1957, this system had stripped Mayor Mann and aldermen sympathetic to the city’s labor-black alliance of their power. Throughout the state, segregationists began stirring racial unrest and urging working-class whites to embrace their racial rather than class identity.

During the Central High Desegregation Crisis, Smith emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the segregationists and erstwhile ally Orval Faubus. In 1958, as Faubus was seeking a third term, the Arkansas AFL-CIO passed a Smith-authored resolution denouncing the governor as an enemy of organized labor and calling for his defeat. Later that year, Smith and Teamster attorney Tom Gentry convinced the Arkansas Supreme Court to remove from the ballot a radical segregationist measure that would have, among other things, restricted black voting. Smith also took a leading role in the open school movement, working closely with the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC), especially on the school board recall vote. During that election, Smith’s Teamsters organized carpools to transport black voters to the polls.

The successful open-the-schools movement became the basis for rebuilding the liberal coalition, and Smith took the lead. He helped bring together labor, African Americans, and liberal groups including the WEC. The coalition beat back attempts to get rid of compulsory education, brought voting machines and the secret ballot to the state, and pushed through in 1964 the constitutional amendment that abolished the poll tax and set up the voter registration system.

By the end of the 1960s, J. Bill Becker, a former protégé of Smith’s, had taken over leadership of the Arkansas labor movement and the liberal coalition, and Smith had begun spending most of his time on Teamster business. Local 878 grew to over 5,500 members, who enjoyed high wages, generous health benefits, and a fully funded pension fund. By the early 1970s, Smith and Local 878’s leadership had become complacent and faced an insurgency led by younger members eager for a more activist union. In December 1973, the membership voted Smith out of office, ending his thirty-six-year tenure as head of the local.

Smith died in Hot Springs (Garland County) on March 22, 1979, collapsing after placing a bet in the ninth race at Oaklawn Park. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Lillian, an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and survived by his second wife, Coreen Rogers Smith.

For additional information:
Brantley, Max. “Teamsters Oust Smith as Head after 36 Years.” Arkansas Gazette, December 21, 1973, pp. 1A, 2A.

Davis, Richard. “Odell Smith: He’s in the Business of Bargaining.” Arkansas Gazette, July 8, 1956, p. 5E.

“Harmonious Labor-Management Relations Stressed by New President, State Fed. of Labor.” Union Labor Bulletin, June 10, 1955, pp. 1, 4.

“Odell Smith, 74, Founder of Teamsters Local 878.” Arkansas Democrat, March 23, 1979, p. 6A.

“Odell Smith Dies at Age 74.” Arkansas Gazette, March 23, 1979, pp. 1A, 3A.

Pierce, Michael. “Odell Smith, Teamsters Local 878, and Civil Rights Unionism in Little Rock, 1943–1965.” Journal of Southern History 84 (November 2018): 925–958.

———. “Revenge of the Elite: The City Manager System and the Collapse of Racial Moderation in Little Rock, 1955–1957.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 78 (Summer 2019).

Michael Pierce
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville