John Samuel (Sam) Faubus (1887–1966)
John Samuel (Sam) Faubus was a hardscrabble farmer whose struggles to make a living for his large family from the thin hillside soil of Madison County turned him, for his time, into a radical—a champion of labor unions, civil rights for African Americans, other forms of social justice, and finally the Socialist Party of America. Following the script of the Socialist Party and its leader, Eugene V. Debs, Faubus opposed America’s entry into World War I and was arrested on federal sedition charges for distributing pamphlets opposing the war. After the early reforms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, including Social Security, rural electrification, farm relief, and the federal wage-and-hour laws of 1936 and 1938, Faubus abandoned socialism, or at least the Socialist Party. Before the New Deal, Faubus had distributed tracts championing socialist causes and, sometimes with his eldest son, Orval Eugene Faubus, debated capitalism versus socialism before sizable crowds in the Madison County towns of Combs and St. Paul south of the county seat of Huntsville.
Sam Faubus was born on October 24, 1887, to William Henry Faubus and Malinda Ann (Lindy) Sparks Faubus, who had settled the year before on Mill Creek in the rugged Boston Mountains south of Combs. The Faubuses had migrated originally from the hills of Scotland and journeyed over time through the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky before Faubus’s parents homesteaded in Madison County. Henry Faubus tried to farm on the hillsides, but subsistence required also working much of the year in the timber-harvesting industry that followed the growth of railroads and wood products. The family moved to a house on another hillside on Greasy Creek, north of Combs. At the age of seven, “Little Sam,” as he became known, was helping his father in the woods, clearing trees, roots, and stones for cultivation of the hillside, and also making crossties for railroad tracks. Henry Faubus died in 1900, when Sam was thirteen, so he had to become the breadwinner for his mother and six younger siblings. He had had only a few weeks a year of schooling through the fourth grade, and that ended upon his father’s death. Although having little formal education, he became a compulsive reader of history, economics, politics, and philosophy. “I worked in my younger days as a tiemaker,” Faubus would recall in old age. “Not the wearing kind, but the kind that railroads use. I made them for ten cents apiece. That’s why I became a liberal. I don’t like slave labor, and that’s just what it was.”
Sam Faubus married Addie Ada Joslen of Combs on Christmas Eve 1908. They moved to a two-story log house on Standley Mountain above a fork of Greasy Creek, and Orval Eugene was born two years later, on January 7, 1910. He was named “Eugene” for Sam’s hero, Eugene Debs. Other sons were named after Clarence Darrow, the famous labor and defense lawyer, and Karl Marx, the radical German philosopher and political economist. Addie died in 1936, and Sam married a widow, Maudie Blanch Wonders.
He and son Orval cleared land and tried to farm, but spring rains washed away the thin soil. He constantly searched for better, more lucrative work. He did itinerant farm labor, usually wheat harvests, in the Midwest and even in Canada and for two years worked in a lead mine in Picher, Oklahoma, sending his measly earnings back to sustain the family on Greasy Creek. He developed catarrh—a chronic inflammation of the mucous membranes—and a degenerative arthritic hip, which gave him a limp most of his life. All of it fed a turn to radicalism and advocacy, the passions of his life.
Faubus joined the Socialist Party after Orval was born. He assisted the unionizing employees of the St. Paul branch of the Fayetteville and Little Rock Railroad. He was enraged at the oppressive conditions of the railroad workers and the punishment given unionizing workers. The union eventually got them better wages, an eight-hour day, retirement protection, and other benefits, and Faubus became an unabashed union man for the rest of his life. Church of Christ ministers were the chief evangelists for the Socialist Party in Arkansas at the time, holding revivals in towns like Combs and St. Paul (where Faubus was baptized in 1910).
“That’s how he got hold of the first socialist literature,” Orval Faubus would say, “through his connections with the church group or church figures.” The evangelists chastised bourgeois churches for the materialism and hypocrisy that they said Jesus had condemned. But the southern evangels of socialism rejected the racial equality advocated by Debs. For Southern socialists, but not for Faubus, equality was to be among whites.
Sam’s advocacy became widely known through the mountains. He compiled and distributed pamphlets, tracts, books, and magazines on the issues of the day. “Our connection with the world,” Orval said, “was through the written word.”
While Europe was consumed by the war, Sam Faubus, at the age of twenty-nine, registered for the draft at Huntsville on June 5, 1917, more than a month after the United States had entered the war. He claimed no exemption on his registration form, although he must already have opposed entering the war. Orval would later recall that he was sleeping in the living room one night when he was awakened by two men leaving the house with cloth satchels slung over their shoulders. They were Sam and his radical friend Arch Cornett, who together had formed the Mill Creek Local of the Socialist Party. They walked over the mountain to St. Paul carrying stacks of leaflets opposing the war and hung a packet on every doorway in town.
Faubus and Cornett were charged with violating the Sedition Act of 1918 by “distributing seditious material” and “uttering numerous disloyal remarks.” The war ended before the men were tried, and they never had to go to jail. The Arkansas Gazette reported their arrests. The article identified Faubus as “long the Socialist Party leader in Madison County” and said he “is alleged to have championed the cause of the I.W.W. [International Workers of the World] and the anarchist elements of his party.”
Sam Faubus continued his labors and his agitating. He wrote a column for the weekly Madison County Record, later owned and edited by Orval, in which he propounded his ideas about the events of the world, nation, and state. He refused to rejoin the Socialist Party, but during the early winter of 1933 he hitched a ride on a freight train through snow to attend the second National Farmers Conference in Chicago, where 700 radicalized farmers sought a federal moratorium on farm foreclosures during the Great Depression. Over the years, he would write poetry and commentary. He subscribed to The Daily Worker, the Marxist paper, and occasionally contributed small pieces. He thought communism was a pretty good theory of how things should work but came to be horrified by the authoritarianism and rejection of human rights that characterized its practice in Russia. His poems were used in several journals, including the Arkansas Union Labor Bulletin. A concluding stanza to a typical Sam Faubus poem reads thusly: “I’d rather be an honest peasant / Taking my living from the soil / Than to be a rich parasite / Living by others’ toil.”
Sam Faubus was shocked and mystified when, three years after his son Orval’s election as governor, he sent soldiers to block nine Black children from attending Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Sam for years sent letters to the editor of the Gazette under the pseudonym “Jimmie Higgins, Combs,” often obliquely criticizing, although not by name, his son’s stance on integration. “Jimmie Higgins” was a slang phrase describing socialist activists. Orval was familiar with the term and no doubt knew the writer was his father.
In 1963, Governor Faubus introduced President John F. Kennedy at the Greers Ferry Dam dedication but mildly berated him for a civil rights bill pending in Congress, calling it a “civil wrongs” bill. (It became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) An hour later, he arranged for his father to replace him at Kennedy’s side at a lunch in Little Rock. Kennedy told Sam that he had received a letter from Bonnie Lou Salcido, one of Sam’s daughters and Orval’s sister, praising him, promising his reelection in 1964, and criticizing her brother’s racial ideology. Kennedy thanked the old man for his and his daughter’s support.
Sam Faubus died of lymphatic cancer on August 24, 1966, with Orval at his side. An editorial in the Arkansas Gazette carried this encomium: “Sam Faubus would have stood out in any time, that of his own father, his father’s father, anytime. The Ozark mountaineers needed such a man who could articulate their anger at the exploitative economic system that plagued their lives.” He is buried in Combs Cemetery. His tombstone bears the inscription: “He did his share of the world’s work.”
For additional information:
Dumas, Ernest, “The Saga of Bonnie and Jack.” Arkansas Times, July 2021, pp. 18–21. Online at https://arktimes.com/columns/ernest-dumas/2021/07/02/messages-to-jfk-from-the-faubus-clan-reveal-a-house-divided (accessed October 18, 2022).
Kiser, G. Gregory. “The Socialist Party in Arkansas, 1900–1912.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 40 (Summer 1981): 119–153.
Reed, Roy. Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
“Sam Faubus Dies at Age 78.” Arkansas Gazette, August 25, 1966, pp. 1A, 2A.
Wagy, Tom. “Little Sam Faubus: Hillbilly Socialist.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Autumn 1994): 263–289.
Williams, Nancy A., and Jeannie M. Whayne, eds. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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