Perlesta Arthur "Les" Hollingsworth (1936–2007)
Perlesta Arthur “Les” Hollingsworth was a lawyer whose battle for equal justice for African Americans took him through the trial courts as a civil rights litigator, into municipal politics, and eventually to the state’s highest court, where he served for fourteen months as a justice in 1983 and 1984. He was the second Black member elected to the Little Rock (Pulaski County) city board of directors and the third African American to be appointed justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Les Hollingsworth was born on April 12, 1936, in Little Rock to Perlesta Gomez Hollingsworth, who was a soldier, and Eartha Mae Frampton, a schoolteacher in Sherwood (Pulaski County). His father spent part of his life in a veterans’ home in Michigan. Hollingsworth was reared by his maternal grandfather, Arthur Frampton, a plasterer in the integrated neighborhood of Park Street in Little Rock. He attended the segregated Little Rock schools and walked past Central High School, two blocks from his home, to Dunbar High School, where he graduated in 1954. He had served as the president of the newly organized National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council, which was started by Daisy Bates, who was president of the Arkansas branch of the NAACP. He attended Talladega College, Alabama’s oldest Black private liberal arts college, and earned a degree in chemistry in 1958.
It was while he was at Talladega that nine Black teenagers entered Central High for the first time, setting off the historic federal-state confrontation over the integration of public schools in the South. Had it occurred three years earlier, Hollingsworth might have been one of the youngsters who broke the barrier, but he closely followed the strife back in his hometown. Many years later, he reflected on his observations about his townspeople at the time. He remembered the rage on the faces of the mob and also the attitudes of his white neighbors and others who said and did nothing: “The shocking thing to me in 1957 was the number of whites who didn’t participate in the aggression, who wouldn’t do anything but look,” he said. “Neighbors would express dismay but wouldn’t do anything, wouldn’t speak out against it, would go ahead and close their doors to it.”
After college, Hollingsworth served two years in the U.S. Army and then worked as a postman, a chemist, and a research hematologist while he was earning a law degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County). He received his law license in 1969.
He married Ada Louise Shine of Little Rock. They had three daughters and a son. Two became attorneys, one a teacher, and a fourth, Terri Hollingsworth, the county and circuit clerk for Pulaski County, the county’s first Black elected official.
Hollingsworth joined John W. Walker, Burl C. “Buddy” Rotenberry, Philip Kaplan, and John T. “Jack” Lavey in the first racially integrated law firm in the state. He left the firm less than two years later but continued the civil rights litigation that was a large part of the firm’s work. He won several significant victories in job and electoral discrimination cases in federal court, including a judgment against a bank for discriminating against Black employees and job seekers (Paxton v. Union National Bank, 1982) and successive orders for the state Board of Apportionment to reapportion state legislative seats to give African Americans a greater chance to elect lawmakers (Jeffers v. Tucker, 1994).
Hollingsworth joined the staff of Governor Winthrop Rockefeller as his aide on prison affairs and extradition after Rockefeller’s election in 1966. He helped the governor prepare his final act as governor—commuting the sentences of all fifteen men on Arkansas’s Death Row on December 29, 1970. Rockefeller was a lifelong opponent of the death penalty and thought it was his Christian duty to spare the lives he could.
When Jim Guy Tucker was elected prosecuting attorney for the Sixth Judicial District in 1972, he appointed Hollingsworth a deputy prosecutor, making him the second African American, after his friend Richard L. Mays, to be a full-time prosecutor. In 1972, Hollingsworth ran for and was elected to the Little Rock Board of Directors, only the second Black person to hold the office. Hollingsworth served two terms. Later, he served on the municipal airport commission for approximately ten years.
Hollingsworth was part of the legal team that filed another long-running desegregation suit in federal court in 1982 (Little Rock School District, et al. v. Pulaski County Special School District, et al.) to bring about consolidation of school districts in Pulaski County to overcome cross-district discrimination against Black students and teachers. The trial judge, Henry Woods, granted the district what Hollingsworth sought, consolidation of the three districts, but the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals altered the judgment, and the case continued in the federal courts for more than thirty years. Although Hollingsworth left the case to his co-counsels Janet Pulliam and Phil Kaplan when he was appointed to the Supreme Court late in 1983, his suit eventually produced a settlement in which the state paid the Little Rock schools $130 million over ten years to compensate for the burden of educating Black youngsters that the city bore for many years before the integration crisis.
In 1985, the New York Times carried a front-page article about the second version of the famous suit to integrate the city schools in 1957, quoting Hollingsworth extensively on the issue that would dog Southern schools for a generation—efforts to achieve a measure of racial balance in the schools, through consolidation and such remedies as cross-district busing of children. Hollingsworth said he realized that sixty percent of the population, regardless of race, probably opposed consolidation and busing. The Times reported: “[Hollingsworth] said blacks resented the notion that they had to go to a white-majority school to be successful. Many also resent having their children bused into white suburbs to school, he said, and some believe blacks have already borne the main burden of busing to achieve desegregation. Mr. Hollingsworth takes the view that integration is necessary for black success, no matter how much trouble it is, because black children need to learn how to operate in a system with a white majority.”
Justice J. Frank Holt died in October 1983, and Governor Bill Clinton appointed Hollingsworth to the court for the duration of Holt’s term, until January 1985.
In 1999, the Supreme Court suspended Hollingsworth’s law license for violating rules of conduct, including misusing a client’s estate funds. Deeply depressed, Hollingsworth left Little Rock and worked for a while for the Georgia Economic Development Department in Atlanta, lived in New Jersey where a daughter lived, and then returned to Little Rock in 2007. He died of pancreatic cancer on May 12, 2007. He is buried in the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock (Pulaski County).
For additional information:
Denton, Herbert H. “The Deeper Dilemmas of Little Rock.” Washington Post, September 5, 1982. Online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1982/09/05/the-deeper-dilemmas-of-little-rock/5243291a-4089-4db2-a9be-16c5f478b8b5/ (accessed April 20, 2022).
Oman, Noel. “Hollingsworth, 71, Dies; Attorney in Schools Suit.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 14, 2007, pp. 1B, 5B.
Reed, Roy. “Little Rock a Symbol Again: The Resegregation of Schools.” New York Times, March 23, 1985, p. 1A.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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