Charles Franklin Cunningham (1933–2017)
Charles Franklin Cunningham Sr. was instrumental in the creation and leadership of the Central Arkansas Development Council (CADC) and served as its executive director for thirty-seven years. In 1981, he became the first African-American mayor of Benton (Saline County). As mayor, Cunningham presided over Benton’s change from a city-manger system to a mayor-council form of government, which cut short his term in office. From 2003 to his death in 2017, he served as alderman for Benton’s Ward 2, which encompasses much of Benton’s Southside, including the communities of Christy Acres and the historic Ralph Bunche Community.
Charles F. Cunningham was born on January 17, 1933, in South Pittsburg in Marion County, Tennessee, to Floyd S. Cunningham and Georgia Anna Cunningham. In 1952, he married Josie M. Slaughter. Following service in the U.S. Army, Cunningham earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and chemistry from Tennessee State University. In 1959, Charles and Josie Cunningham began teaching at Benton’s predominantly black Ralph Bunche High School. The Cunninghams, who lived in what is now Benton’s Ralph Bunche Community, had five children: Charles Jr., Richard, Alan, Angela, and Joe Anne.
In 1968, Ralph Bunche High School, where Cunningham and his wife taught, was closed due to integration. Charles had already left teaching by then, but his wife Josie remained until the school’s closing. In 1969, Josie Cunningham filed suit against the Benton School District, alleging that she was not transferred to the mostly white Benton High School based solely on her race. She had instead been assigned to Benton’s elementary schools as a physical education instructor and librarian despite holding a BS in home economics with a minor in general sciences and certification to teach both. On September 12, 1969, the Arkansas Democrat reported that she had won her suit and had been offered a job teaching general science classes at Benton High School with “a salary comparable to other teachers” in the Benton School District.
The Economic Opportunity Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 20, 1964. In 1965, the CADC was formed in direct response to Johnson’s new “War on Poverty.” In 1971, Cunningham became its executive director.
On February 16, 1974, the Arkansas Gazette announced that Cunningham had been elected president of the Arkansas Community Action Agency Association, replacing Wallace Smith, director of the Northwest Arkansas Economic Opportunity Agency. In 1975, Cunningham was invited by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to participate in a panel discussion on rural transportation. In January 1981, the Benton Board of Directors voted unanimously to elect Cunningham as mayor. He had been a member of the board since its inception in 1976. Cunningham had succeeded Gerald Porter, who had been defeated for reelection the previous November. Cunningham was already executive director of CADC at the time of his election, and he was the first African American to hold the position of mayor in Benton.
As mayor, Cunningham presided over big changes in government and utility operations. He set July 14, 1981, as the date of a special election to let Benton residents decide whether to change from a city manager form of government to a mayor-council form. Cunningham issued his proclamation in response to eighty-seven pages of petitions submitted to City Clerk Jo Anne Boone. The people of Benton voted 2,232 to 511 to “turn out the 4½ year old city manager system,” despite Cunningham’s support for it. Following the vote, a special election was held on September 8, 1981, to elect a new city government, and Cunningham was succeeded as mayor by George Wagner.
Cunningham remained director of CADC until 2003, when he stepped down to become alderman for Benton’s Ward 2. Larry Cogburn replaced Cunningham as executive director of CADC that year.
Josie Cunningham died in 2005. Charles Cunningham died on April 18, 2017, at his home in Benton. At the time, he was still serving as alderman in Ward 2. He was a lifelong member of Johnson Street Church of Christ there and served as a church elder. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Ralph Bunche Community.
On November 10, 2017, the Ralph Bunche Park pavilion was dedicated at 1300 S. East Street in Benton in his honor. The dedication ceremony concluded with the unveiling of a plaque reading “In Memory of Alderman Cunningham.”
For additional information:
“Benton Alderman Charles Cunningham Dies.” Saline Courier, April 19, 2017. Online at https://www.bentoncourier.com/content/benton-alderman-charles-cunningham-dies (accessed December 12, 2018).
“Board Elects New Mayor of Benton.” Arkansas Gazette, January 7, 1981, p. 19A.
Briggs, Josh. “Bunche Pavilion to Be Named in Honor of Late Alderman.” Saline Courier, November 8, 2017, pp. 1, 9.
“CAA Group Elects President.” Arkansas Gazette, February 16. 1974, p. 6B.
“Charles Cunningham.” Find-a-Grave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/178589127/charles-f.-cunningham (accessed December 12, 2018).
“City Manager Rule Dropped at 2 Cities in State for Similar, Economic Reasons.” Arkansas Gazette, July 19, 1981, p. 5A.
“Development Officer to Attend Forum.” Arkansas Democrat, November 8, 1975, p. 9A.
“Election Scheduled at Benton.” Arkansas Gazette, June 3, 1981, p. 11C.
“Ex-Teacher Wins Job in That Capacity with Benton District.” Arkansas Democrat, September 12, 1969, p. 10B.
Hollenbeck, Lynda. “2017: A Year in Review.” Saline Courier, January 1, 2018, p. 1.
“Negro Students Counted at 110.” Benton Courier, September 9, 1965, p. 1.
“Negro Teacher Files Suit for New Assignment.” Benton Courier, August 28, 1969, p. 1.
Saline County History and Heritage Society. A History of Benton Public Schools. Benton, AR: Saline County History and Heritage Society, 1998.
Cody Lynn Berry
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