Lee A. Seamster (1888–1960)
Lee A. Seamster was a lawyer and politician from Benton County whose political strivings took him from leadership of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s to a succession of municipal, county, legislative, and judicial offices and finally to chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Seamster’s political and ideological pilgrimage was typical of many young men who reached maturity during and after World War I. When Chief Justice Griffin Smith died in 1955, Governor Orval E. Faubus, whose own wide political wanderings were notable, appointed Seamster to serve the final twenty months of Smith’s term.
Lee Seamster was born on September 14, 1888, in the Benton County community of Beaty, west of Bentonville (Benton County). He was one of nine children—seven boys and two girls—of Missouri-born farmers Martin Luther Seamster and Nancy Jane Cole Seamster. Early records referred to him as Leander A. Seamster, but he never used the name. He was always listed as Lee or Lee A. In 1942, Arkansas issued a new birth certificate listing his birthname simply as “Lee Seamster.”
He went to public schools in Gravette (Benton County) and Bentonville and attended a preparatory academy in the Hiwassee (Benton County) community east of Gravette, which enabled him to get a teaching certificate when he was about eighteen. He taught in rural schools for two years and, in 1908, married Fannie Louise Presley. They would rear three children. While delivering mail in rural Benton County for six years, he studied law under W. D. Mauck, a judge in Benton County (a practice many at the time undertook instead of going to law school). He became a member of the bar in 1913 and opened a law practice in Bentonville in 1920.
He also took up politics, first by being elected a justice of the peace in Benton County, then alderman in Bentonville, and then, in 1918, state representative. He was elected mayor of Bentonville in 1921 but soon resigned and moved to Fayetteville (Washington County) to practice law in partnership with John W. Nance.
Lee and his brother Alvin Seamster were charter members of the Ku Klux Klan at Bentonville, which soon erected a monument to Confederate soldiers on the city square. Lee Seamster and a neighbor, Clyde T. Ellis, a future congressman and national champion of rural electrification, bought the original Arkansas secession act passed on November 14, 1861, which substituted “Confederate States of America” where “United States” had been. Seamster’s wife Fannie was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. His brother Alvin, also an avid historian, was active in the Arkansas Historical Association and advocated a state history curriculum in Arkansas schools that taught the Lost Cause revisionist account of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow eras.
Seamster’s attachment to the KKK during the 1920s was typical of young men rising to leadership in their communities after World War I, not merely in northwestern Arkansas but across the state and much of the nation. The Klan, which in that era sought to suppress not merely Blacks but also Catholics, Jews, drunks, unfaithful husbands, prostitutes, and others, attracted many Lost Cause adherents. Many future American leaders, such as the liberal Justice Hugo Black of the U.S. Supreme Court and Arkansas governors Tom J. Terral and Homer M. Adkins, were Klansmen in the 1920s. That version of the KKK had peaked in power by 1925 and soon disappeared.
Little evidence of the Klan’s absorption with racial, moral, and spiritual cleansing could be found in Seamster’s long political and legal career afterward, as it would in, for example, Homer Adkins’s career. Seamster was elected chancery judge of the thirteenth district, mainly Washington County, in 1924 and was on that bench throughout the Great Depression, until January 1943. He returned to private law practice in 1943, although he was elected in 1946 to a single term in the state House of Representatives, this time representing Washington County. The race for representative was the only time in his career that he had an opponent.
Being a judge did not curtail his political activity. He was a big supporter of Harvey Parnell, who was something of a liberal governor (he was the father of Arkansas’s graduated income taxes for corporations and individuals). He was prepared to leave the bench and run for governor in 1932 but backed out when archconservative Chancery Judge J. Marion Futrell joined the big field. Seamster was a regional manager of Dwight Blackwood’s campaign for governor, but runoffs were not required, and Futrell won easily. Seamster sought the interim Supreme Court job when Justice Turner Butler died in 1938, but Governor Carl Bailey appointed W. R. Donham. In 1944, Seamster backed the liberal congressman J. William Fulbright for the U.S. Senate over the former Klansman, Governor Adkins.
When the liberal Marine hero Sidney S. McMath was elected governor in 1948 and defied the Southern Dixiecrat effort to block the presidential renomination of civil rights champion Harry S. Truman, Seamster was McMath’s legislative assistant each time the Arkansas General Assembly met. When Seamster’s successor as chancery judge in Washington County, John K. Butts, was killed in a wreck in 1949, McMath appointed Seamster to finish his term.
In May 1955, four months after McMath’s former aide Orval E. Faubus became governor, Chief Justice Griffin Smith died. Faubus appointed Seamster to serve the last twenty months of Smith’s term. He wrote fifteen majority opinions, but it was a period when few major legal disputes reached the court. Seamster left the court in January 1957, just as the great legal disputes over racial integration in the schools and elsewhere reached the highest court, which might have tested any lingering allegiance of Seamster to the Lost Cause of his youth. He was a legislative advisor of Faubus in the 1957 regular session of the legislature, when early segregation measures, like the creation of a state sovereignty commission, tormented the young governor, a product of the socialist school at Mena (Polk County), Commonwealth College.
Seamster died on July 25, 1960. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Fayetteville.
For additional information:
Annals of Arkansas. Vol. 4. Hopkinsville, KY: Historical Record Association, 1947.
“Death Ends Long Career of Judge Lee Seamster.” Arkansas Gazette, July 26, 1960, p. 1B.
“Lee Seamster, Former Chief Justice, Dies.” Northwest Arkansas Times, July 25, 1960, p. 1.
“Seamster, Ex-Chief Justice, Dies.” Arkansas Democrat, July 25, 1960, p, 1A.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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