Larry Wainwright (Murder of)

The 1967 murder of Larry Wainwright, an African-American teenager, near his home in the black neighborhood of Morning Star rocked the city of El Dorado (Union County) and remains an important civil rights–era cold case. This was not the first time Morning Star had been subjected to racist violence. Whites would regularly drive through the neighborhood and throw bottles or bricks at the black men, women, and children, seriously injuring them. Wainwright’s parents, Melvin and Louise Wainwright, and the African American community of Morning Star mourned the loss but also rallied in the wake of Wainwright’s death, ensuring that the murder was publicized beyond Union County and El Dorado. Although national attention was lacking, newspapers such as the Northwest Arkansas Times of Fayetteville (Washington County), the Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), and the Monroe News Star (Monroe, Louisiana) reported on the murder.

On the night of Saturday, September 30, 1967, Wainwright was shot in the chest with a shotgun while walking within a block of his home at 2734 N. College Street. He stumbled onto the porch of neighbor Will Gafford and was later transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Sixteen days later, two local white teenagers were charged with first-degree murder by the First Division Circuit Court. They were seventeen-year-old Hershel Alan Smith and George Eric Armour, both seniors at El Dorado High School. They pleaded not guilty and were both represented in court by the same attorneys from the law firm of Brown, Compton, and Prewett, which is not standard procedure when both defendants have been arrested for the same crime. According to one oral history, a third young man, the son of an influential local doctor, was involved in the murder but was never charged; reportedly, these three individuals had bragged about the murder at school. There was also some speculation that Smith was affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.

When testimony began in Hershel Alan Smith’s case in early March 1968, the state’s chief witness, Gerald Carney, took the stand. Carney had been away at college when he found out that he was a witness, although he had not been subpoenaed. He testified that Smith and two other boys rode around with him after a party. “We headed up North College and saw a lot of police cars. Alan (Hershel) said it must have been an accident: We continued to the party and let Rem Walker and Punch James out there,” Carney said. “After we had let Walker and James out of my car, Alan and I were riding around. I asked Alan if he had anything to do with the police cars on College, and he said he had shot a Negro and mentioned a 12-gauge shotgun and 00 buckshot,” Carney said in direct examination.

Carney also testified that two weeks later Smith told him not to tell anyone what Smith had said. After a grueling cross-examination, Smith took the stand and insisted that he could not have been the murderer: “David Burns and I went to town to get beer and were probably gone about 45 minutes to one hour. I was talking about throwing a Negro off the Ouachita River Bridge, but I was not serious about it.” Smith also admitted that he told Danny Lewis and Bob Gardner that he wanted to pick up a hitchhiker, knock him in the head with a Coke bottle, and throw him off the bridge, but that he was only joking. Smith’s and Armour’s parents also testified in defense of the teenagers. Numerous classmates and friends took the stand to give alibies for the defendants.

Several witnesses took the stand for the state. Ray Collins told the court that he and Wainwright had walked together along College Avenue before splitting up, and he told of hearing or seeing two cars and then hearing two gunshots: “They sounded like two shotguns.” Larry Wainwright’s parents never took the stand.

T. W. Johnson, a licensed polygraph examiner from Waco, Texas, was called to the stand and had just introduced himself when attorneys for the defense huddled; Johnson left the chair, never to return.

The all-white, all-male jury was instructed by Prewett to look over the facts of Smith’s racist statement and Carney’s testimony as to Smith’s admission of having committed the crime. Prosecuting Attorney John M. Graves finalized the state’s closing arguments and told the jury, “By your verdict you will determine the gratitude of this community. You are going to determine whether we will be able to walk safely or constantly be worried about getting shot with a load of buckshot.”

In the trial of Hershel Alan Smith, the jury ruled not guilty. Gasps came from the courtroom. In the El Dorado Times, Mayor I. L. Pesses expressed his belief that the problems of his city were simply “juvenile delinquencies,” just like those of any other growing city.

On March 3, 1968, about 350 African Americans conducted a quiet protest as a result of the acquittal. During the demonstration, which was sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council, the protesters sang hymns and prayed while marching from the northern outskirts of El Dorado to the Union County Courthouse. A few incidents of minor violence and arrests occurred over the next few days. However, the situation became tense by March 7 when about sixty black protestors said to be throwing rocks and bricks near the all-black Washington High School were dispersed with tear gas by the city police. Soon after, the mayor declared a state of emergency in the city and ordered a 9:00 p.m. curfew for all people under the age of twenty-one for Friday and Saturday night. The climate in the city slowly returned to normal.

On March 11, a reward fund was established by the El Dorado City Council and the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce after consideration of a resolution passed by the Bi-Racial Committee. The reward was “for the purpose of inducing the receipt and availability of information leading to the indictment and convictions of the person or persons responsible for or involved within the crime committed upon the person of Larry Wainwright.”

When George Eric Armour stood trial for the murder of Wainwright, he was also acquitted.

On April 15, 1973, a day after his twenty-third birthday, Hershel Alan Smith died in his jail cell; he had numerous arrests stemming from drugs and alcohol.

As of 2019, no one has been convicted for the murder of Larry Wainwright.

For additional information:
Butterfield, Curtis. “Smith Verdict Is Not Guilty.” El Dorado Times, March 2, 1968, p. 1.

———. “Testimony Complete in Smith Case.” El Dorado Times, March 1, 1968, p. 6.

Donald, Leroy. “Police Disperse Negro Teenagers; El Dorado Tense.” Arkansas Gazette, March 8, 1968, pp. 1A, 2A.

“El Dorado Youth Found Innocent of Murder Charge.” Northwest Arkansas Times, March 2, 1968, p. 10.

Moore, Maurice. “Violence Leads El Dorado to Crime Problem Reality.” El Dorado Times, November 13, 1967, p. 1.

Obituary of Larry Wainwright. El Dorado Times, October 7, 1967, p. 10.

“Reward Fund Started in Larry Wainwright Probe.” El Dorado Times, March 11, 1968, p. 6.

“Two Youths Arraigned Being Held.” El Dorado Times, October 18, 1967, p. 3.

Tyrene Jones
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Last Updated: 08/09/2019