Joseph Frank Holt (1910–1983)
J. Frank Holt was a major figure in Arkansas legal and political circles in the 1950s and 1960s. He served in numerous public offices, including two terms on the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Joseph Franklin Holt was born on October 22, 1910, in Harrison (Boone County). One of eleven children of Noah Calvin “Bud” Holt and Malicia Adeline Moore Holt, he grew up in Harrison, where he sold newspapers and worked in a garage while in high school before attending the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). He had to drop out of college and return home due to the Great Depression. He worked a variety of jobs, including selling insurance, teaching in the Cotter (Baxter County) school district, and serving as a clerk in the Arkansas Highway Department before returning to school and earning his law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1937. The following year, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Upon his return, he began work in the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office, which was then headed by his older brother, Jack. Holt also worked on his brother’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1942 as well as his gubernatorial campaigns in 1948 and 1952.
He began working in private practice in Little Rock (Pulaski County), but that was interrupted by World War II. He served as an enlisted man in U.S. Army Intelligence. Following the war, Holt returned to private practice, entering into a partnership with his brother Jack in Little Rock. In 1948, he returned to public service, being appointed deputy prosecuting attorney for the Sixth Judicial District (covering Pulaski and Perry counties). He was subsequently elected prosecuting attorney for the district and served from 1954 to 1960, a tenure that included the events surrounding the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School. While he was besieged by constant threats and calls and was frequently spat upon by segregationists, Holt focused on performing the responsibilities of his office professionally. Foremost among his work was the successful prosecution of the perpetrators of the 1959 Labor Day bombing who had sought to halt the desegregation effort.
In 1961, he assumed the office of Arkansas attorney general, succeeding Bruce Bennett. Holt held the office for only two years, leaving the post after being elected in 1962 in a special election for a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court, where he succeeded his cousin J. Seaborn Holt. Holt served on the court until 1966, when he resigned to seek the office of governor. The campaign was a challenge. By all accounts, Holt’s temperament was better suited to the halls of justice than the campaign trail. Too, he emerged as the candidate around whom the state’s Democratic establishment converged, and so in a contest in which race and change—Orval Faubus was stepping down after six terms and twelve years—were central issues, Holt was tagged as the status quo candidate. Meanwhile, on the issue of race, he was not an advocate of wholesale integration, but he recognized the changes that were coming to Arkansas and the South. In response, he maintained that the white-supremacist approach of frontrunner Jim Johnson, a former state Supreme Court justice, would only worsen relations. Holt tried to make voters recognize that Arkansas could not wage war against the modern world and would need to move forward. In the end, while Holt finished as runner-up in a crowded seven-man field, he lost the run-off to Johnson by 15,000 votes. Johnson would subsequently lose to Republican Winthrop Rockefeller.
When an opening on the Arkansas Supreme Court appeared with the retirement in 1968 of Justice Paul Ward, Holt again ran for a seat on the court, and with his victory he began his second term, this one lasting for the rest of his life, giving him a total tenure on the state Supreme Court of almost two decades. While there appear to be no major opinions attributed to Holt, he was a highly respected figure in the legal community, and many young lawyers benefited from his advice and career oversight, with some of his former clerks, including Paul Danielson and Elsijane Trimble Roy, going on to serve on the state’s high court.
Holt’s involvement in the community was not limited to elective office. In 1960, he served as a delegate to the White House Conference on Children and Youth. He also served as the Pulaski County chair of both the American Red Cross and the March of Dimes. He also served as state chair of the Arkansas for Multiple Sclerosis campaign and was active in both the American Legion and the State Fund for Radio Free Europe.
Holt and his wife, Mary Reid Phillips Holt, had two children. Holt died on October 30, 1983, of kidney failure. He is buried in Little Rock.
For additional information:
Debenport, Ellen. “Arkansas Supreme Court Justice J. Frank Holt, a 21-year…” UPI, October 30, 1983. Online at https://www.upi.com/Archives/1983/10/30/Arkansas-Supreme-Court-Justice-J-Frank-Holt-a-21-year/1509436334400/ (accessed October 5, 2018).
Walker, Jacqueline S. Wright. “More on Three Men Named Holt.” Arkansas Lawyer, Winter 2008. Online at https://issuu.com/arkansas_bar_association/docs/arkansas_lawyerwinter08 (accessed October 5, 2018).
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated: 02/03/2020