Ray Sammons Smith Jr. (1924–2007)

Ray Sammons Smith Jr. was a lawyer and politician from Hot Springs (Garland County) who spent twenty-eight years as a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives and rose to be speaker of the House and majority leader, despite a political bent that often put him at odds with the prevailing political sentiments of the state and his own community. For example, when the legislature and Governor Orval E. Faubus began to enact legislation early in 1957 to deter or limit school integration, Smith was often one of the few votes in either house against any of the bills. When the legislature in August 1958, shortly before school opening, passed a bill written by Attorney General Bruce Bennett and supported by Governor Faubus that established procedures for the governor to close high schools in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to prevent integration, Representative Smith cast the only vote against the bill among the 135 lawmakers. The New York Times mentioned the courageous vote when it reported Smith’s death in 2007.

Ray Smith was born on February 4, 1924, in Hot Springs to Ray Sammons Smith Sr., who managed real estate, and Elizabeth Young Smith; he had a younger brother and a younger sister.

Smith graduated from Hot Springs High School in 1942, briefly enrolled at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and then left school to enlist in the U.S. Army. He was a pilot with the Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II. (Smith’s younger brother, William Young Smith, became a four-star general of the U.S. Air Force who became chief of staff of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers and deputy commander in chief of the European Command in the 1970s and 1980s.)

He returned to Washington and Lee after the war and graduated summa cum laude and then earned a law degree at the school. He returned to Hot Springs, married Patricia Carolyn Floyd (they would have five children), and joined the law firm of Wood, Chesnutt, Schnipper, Clay and Vines. Two of the partners, Scott Wood and James Chesnutt, became circuit judges.

The Smiths bought a house in Hot Springs next door to state Representative Roy Clinton, who was future governor Bill Clinton’s step-grandfather. Roy Clinton decided to retire in 1954 and urged Smith to run for his seat. Smith was elected.

Smith considered education to be the government’s most important function, and he was appointed to the House Education Committee, where all legislation dealing with the schools had to go. In the spring 1957 legislative session, Smith was lonely but not entirely alone in opposing some of the race-based legislation, including a bill to create a State Sovereignty Commission that was supposed to resist federal efforts to integrate education and other public functions. By the fall of 1958, he was virtually alone.

When the school-closing bill came to a vote on August 27, 1958, the vote was 94–1. Smith’s solitary vote attracted harsh attention. Many years later, he said he had felt sick as he cast it. He did not explain his vote that day as a vote for integration but as a vote that was required because education under the Arkansas constitution was a necessary and mandatory obligation of the state and local communities. The state could not close a local school, he said. Arkansas Supreme Court justice Ed McFaddin, a staunch segregationist, applied the same argument in dissenting when the court upheld the school closing. McFaddin observed that the state constitution said Arkansas had to “ever maintain” suitable schools for every child. “Ever,” he said, meant every year, and the legislature and governor could make no exceptions.

Smith was quoted in the Arkansas Democrat explaining that several other school districts in Arkansas had integrated peaceably and that the state should do nothing to interrupt the good work of schools. “These are not temporary laws we are dealing with,” he said. “We must consider the effect on our schools in the days to come.” Steven Smith, one of Representative Smith’s sons, said his father told the family the evening of the vote that he cast the lonely vote not to reflect his views on anything, race included, but instead on the need for education. He said he was not necessarily a “great liberal” but he did believe in equality.

Little Rock’s high schools were closed for the 1958–59 school year, but a group of residents maneuvered to reopen them in August 1959, ending the long crisis. Smith’s vote did not create serious political trouble for him. He occasionally had an opponent but won easily until 1982.

When the legislature convened in 1965 for Faubus’s final term as governor, Smith was due to be the speaker, having gotten written commitments from most members of the House. Faubus did not want Smith to be the speaker, however, and pressure was put on legislators to renege on their commitments and switch to a Faubus supporter, J. H. Cottrell of Little Rock, on the formal vote. Cottrell was elected. It would be 1971, when Governor Dale Bumpers was sworn in for the first time, that the House finally elected Smith as its speaker. The big Democratic majority in the House in 1973 elected him majority leader.

In 1969, when Governor Winthrop Rockefeller sought a massive tax program, raising the rates of income, sales, and excise taxes, and the legislature voted all of it down, Smith put together a modest package of tax increases to raise funding for the public schools and pushed it through both houses. Rockefeller would not sign the bills because he considered them woefully insufficient but let them become law without his signature. Bumpers, with Smith’s help in the House, passed a considerable part of Rockefeller’s tax package, minus sales tax increases, in 1971.

Smith was defeated in 1982 by Ted Mullenix, a future Republican leader and power lobbyist.

Smith died on November 1, 2007. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs.

For additional information:
Hevesi, Dennis. “Ray S. Smith, Arkansas Lawmaker, Dies at 83.” New York Times, November 12, 2007, 19A.

Jordan, Pryor. “Lone Voter against 1958 School-Closure Bill Dies.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 3, 2007, p. 1B, 7B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 11/05/2021