Bob Lancaster (1943–)

Bob Lancaster worked at several publications as a writer and editor for nearly fifty years. His iconoclastic journalism and imaginative, idiomatic style produced an avid readership wherever he went, and his deep research and waggish writing popularized Arkansas history for a generation of readers. Lancaster wrote for the Pine Bluff Commercial, the Arkansas Gazette, the Arkansas Democrat, the Arkansan, the original Arkansas Times magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the weekly Arkansas Times newspaper. At the end of his four-year sojourn as a daily columnist in Philadelphia, he declined job offers from the New York Times and the St. Petersburg Times of Florida to return to Arkansas. Lancaster published a book of collected writings on Arkansas history, a novel based upon the desegregation crisis at Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1957–1959 and its impact on his hometown, a whimsical autobiography that carried observations on life and customs in rural Arkansas, and, with his friend B. C. Hall, an award-winning book about the murder of a small-town bully in Missouri.

Bobby John Lancaster was born on December 12, 1943, in Sheridan (Grant County), the second youngest of seven children of Joe D. Lancaster and Pauline Speck Lancaster. His father was a carpenter and a sawmill worker. While he was growing up, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and Black families were driven from Sheridan to avoid having their children in its white schools. All seven children eventually settled in Sheridan, and most of them spent part of their lives writing for newspapers and other publications. Lancaster and younger brother Bill both started their careers as sportswriters for the Pine Bluff Commercial.

Like his siblings, Lancaster was a scholastic and athletic leader in the Sheridan schools. In the summers, he worked for the county extension agent measuring farmland that qualified for federal subsidies. That paid his expenses to attend Southern State College (which later became Southern Arkansas University), where he edited the college newspaper and did some freelance sports writing for the state newspapers. At the age of nineteen, he left college and went to work as a sportswriter for the Pine Bluff Commercial. Two years later, when he was only twenty-one, he was covering the Arkansas General Assembly for the paper. A famous event on the last day of the biennial session in March 1965 had an embittering effect, however.

The previous summer, the cafeteria in the basement of the Arkansas State Capitol had been turned into a private club called the Capitol Club that was open only to whites. On March 11, more than thirty Black students, led by white activist Bill Hansen, who was the local leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), marched to the capitol and into the basement to dine in the cafeteria, where state troopers were waiting for them. Lancaster and a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette left the legislative halls upstairs and went into the narrow corridor in the basement to cover the event. When the students tried to move past an official stationed in the doorway of the cafeteria, troopers using billy clubs battered them to the floor and dragged them upstairs and out of the building. Lancaster, who unlike the Gazette man was wearing a plaid shirt instead of a suit and tie, was clubbed to the floor by the lawmen and had to have his face stitched. News stories circulating across the country reported that a reporter was among those clubbed and injured. On television that evening, Governor Orval E. Faubus, whose executive secretary was president of the private club, denounced the protesters and also Lancaster, who he said was not a real reporter but the ringleader of the troublemakers. Oddly, Faubus also said he had it on good authority from Lancaster’s hometown of Sheridan that he was a bad husband and father, an absurd charge that the young writer bitterly resented. (A federal judge soon afterward ruled that space in the seat of government could not be declared private and off limits to one race, and Blacks were admitted to the cafeteria.)

Lancaster’s novel Southern Strategy, about racial intrigues in a fictional nearby town based on events in Sheridan during the Little Rock crisis, was published in 1981. The famous politician who had denounced Lancaster without cause in 1965 was a villain in the novel, along with the rabid white supremacists who were his followers in the town, which had rid itself of Black children who otherwise would have been in the town’s schools after the school-integration order.

He spent nearly seven years at the Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) paper as a sportswriter, columnist, and editorial writer—the latter a task he shared for a year with Paul Greenberg, who received a Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s editorials. He went to work for the Arkansas Democrat as a roving reporter and columnist and then left for a year’s study at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship. When he returned in 1973, he moved down the street to the Arkansas Gazette, where he revived the “Arkansas Traveler” column that had been written for fifteen years by Ernie Deane. As he explained in an oral history in 2000, Lancaster was never a reporter for the Gazette: “I wasn’t ever much of one anywhere. It’s just a talent I never had. I can write opinion, and I can write other kinds of things, but I just have no talent as a reporter. Too shy.”

In 1974, Gene Roberts, the executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, hired him to write a column. For four years, Lancaster wrote regular columns ridiculing Frank Rizzo, the mayor and former police commissioner who built a reputation as the foremost segregationist north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The newspaper won Pulitzer Prizes for exposing the corruption and brutality in Rizzo’s police force. Lancaster endured some retaliation. He was ticketed repeatedly by watchful city policemen for such violations as not coming to a complete stop at intersections or switching lanes without signaling.

He returned to Sheridan to study and write a few books that he had in mind. For nearly ten years—the 1980s—he was senior editor and the most prolific writer for the monthly Arkansas Times magazine, where he plunged into the state’s often ugly past, including the eradication of Native Americans and the depredations of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and disease. Every sentence was energized by humor and Lancaster’s weird idioms, and often by additions to the English vocabulary. In several pieces that later wound up in The Jungles of Arkansas: A Personal History of the Wonder State, he traced Hernando de Soto’s expeditions around the South, including Arkansas. However, his narrative followed the travails of a vast and proliferating herd of swine that de Soto brought with him to feed his men, but which got scattered in the wildernesses and swamps and, perhaps, mutated into the wild boars that became the mascots for University of Arkansas athletic teams. Later, in 1994, the Arkansas Writers Project published a book about Arkansas history, a collection of pictures and articles written mostly by Lancaster.

As a writer for the Arkansas Times, then a weekly newspaper, Lancaster covered the trial in Jonesboro (Craighead County) of the West Memphis Three, teenagers who were convicted of murdering three youngsters in West Memphis. His account of the trial was that the state produced no evidence that the teenagers were involved in the boys’ deaths and that they were convicted only of being weird. The judicial system eventually agreed, seventeen years later, when the three, by then adults, were freed from prisons partly on the basis of forensic evidence that the prosecution did not produce at their trials. Two had been sentenced to death.

Like the contemporary novel The Dog of the South by his friend Charles Portis, and like Portis’s earlier Norwood, Lancaster’s novel Southern Strategy may best be read for the colorful diction and dialogue of country boys, the central characters. This type of language is also a feature of Going Down for Gum Wrappers, which, as its subtitle says, is “About Rassling, Jesus, Playing Ball, High Society, Running for High Office, Life and All.”

Lancaster retired from writing columns for the Arkansas Times weekly newspaper in 2013 and subsequently had a life-saving liver transplant. He and his wife, Martha, live in Sheridan.

For additional information:
Arkansas Times Writers (mostly Bob Lancaster). A History of Arkansas, in Stories and Pictures. Little Rock: Arkansas Writers Project, 1994.

Lancaster, Bob. Going Down for Gum Wrappers. Little Rock: August House, 1986.

———. The Jungles of Arkansas: A Personal History of the Wonder State. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989.

———. Southern Strategy. New York: Seaview Books, 1981.

Lancaster, Bob, and B. C. Hall. Judgment Day. New York: Seaview and Putnam Press, 1989.

McCord, Bob. Interview with Bob Lancaster, May 5, 2000. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. https://pryorcenter.uark.edu/project.php?thisProject=2 (accessed April 22, 2022).

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 04/22/2022

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