Sam M. Levine (1890–1965)
Sam M. Levine was a lawyer and politician in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) who served two stints in the Arkansas General Assembly, first in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, each time in the House of Representatives and then the Senate. A leader in the second-largest Jewish community in the state, Levine made history by delivering a filibuster in the Senate in the final minutes of the biennial legislative session in March 1959 that undermined the last efforts of Governor Orval E. Faubus and white supremacists to keep Little Rock (Pulaski County) schools closed to avoid integrating. Levine’s famous thirty-three-minute speech, which began as the clock in the Senate ticked toward noon and adjournment sine die on March 12, was not a civil-rights speech, as it would often be characterized, but rather a defense of public schools, which he said the state was obliged by law and decency to keep open for every child in the state, integrated or not.
Samuel Michele Levine was born on September 18, 1890, at Jesuit Bend, Louisiana, a rural community on the west bank of the Mississippi River in the swamplands of Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans. He was one of six children of Max Levine and Susie Levy Levine. The Levine family lived for several years in Bonham, Texas, northeast of Dallas, before returning to Plaquemines.
Levine received a bachelor’s degree at Tulane and a law degree from Columbia Law School in New York City, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honor society. He moved to Arkansas to practice law in 1914 and married Alice Ray Franklin of Chicago, Illinois, in 1918. Three of his siblings settled in southern Arkansas. His brother Jay ran a cotton brokerage at Pine Bluff, where Sam opened his law practice in 1923, and his sisters lived at Pine Bluff and Morrilton (Conway County). His wife Alice Levine died in 1951, and the next year, he married Lucille Rubel of Memphis, Tennessee. Lucille was sitting at his desk in the Senate chamber in 1959 when he went to the well to deliver his famous speech.
Levine took an interest in politics and spent six years of the Great Depression—1931 through 1936—in the legislature, wrestling with poverty, climate disasters, and calamitous government policies that were driven by both legislative and executive initiatives. The governor for four of those six years, J. Marion Futrell, did not believe in a system of universal public education, although the state constitution mandated it. Taxes and school funding were cut; teachers were paid with IOUs or scrip, if at all; and school in many places was held only a few months a year. Arkansas defaulted on its debts and relied on federal emergency aid to a greater extent than any other state. Only when the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that it was ending federal assistance to Arkansas did Futrell and the legislature capitulate and impose a sales tax and other revenue sources. Levine spoke and voted for the emergency measures.
Levine was elected to the House of Representatives from Jefferson County in 1930 and instead of seeking the House seat again, he ran for and was elected to the Senate in 1932. His term ended in 1936. He was a supporter of reform-minded Attorney General Carl E. Bailey in the 1936 race for governor and of Bailey’s unsuccessful race for a second term in 1940.
In 1952, he ran for a House seat again and was elected twice, his second election in the Democratic primaries in 1954 coinciding with the nomination and election of Orval Faubus. Levine made his last race for the legislature in 1956, this time for a single four-year term in the Senate.
The U.S. Supreme Court rendered its landmark school-integration decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that spring. Voters in 1956 adopted a constitutional amendment drafted by former state senator Jim Johnson of Crossett (Ashley County) that required state officials, including legislators, to take actions to thwart any court orders requiring racial integration. When the legislature assembled in January 1957, it faced several such bills by legislators from eastern and southern Arkansas. Many lawmakers, especially in the Senate, were reluctant supporters of the segregation bills or, like Levine and colleagues from Little Rock and Pine Bluff, were active opponents of several of the bills; the bills were enacted nonetheless. Especially contentious was a bill and subsequent law creating a state sovereignty commission to spearhead resistance to integration.
In September 1957, Faubus sent National Guard troops to block nine Black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. Thereafter, for two years, nearly every legislator, including Levine, wound up voting for segregation bills that were drafted for Faubus. Only one elected public official in the state, Mayor Woodrow Mann of Little Rock, publicly opposed the governor’s and the legislature’s actions, and he was forced to leave the state for good.
When Faubus called a special legislative session in August 1958 to pass a batch of segregation bills, including one that would authorize him to close schools facing court-ordered integration, the legislature passed them with only one dissenting vote, that of Representative Ray S. Smith Jr. of Hot Springs (Garland County). Levine told the Senate in a short, quiet speech that while he might have different feelings about some of Faubus’s bills, he was going to vote for them because they represented the feelings of most of the people in his county; but he said that he might not vote for a separate batch of segregation bills written by Attorney General Bruce Bennett because they were not essential to keeping Little Rock schools segregated. Faubus closed the city’s high schools for the 1958–59 school year, which became known as “the Lost Year.”
By spring, the elected Little Rock School Board was split evenly, with three moderates and three diehard segregationists. Segregationists had compiled a list of forty-four Little Rock teachers and administrators who were thought to favor integration, and the three segregationist board members, supported by Faubus, wanted to fire them. Representative T. E. Tyler of Little Rock introduced a bill empowering the governor to appoint three members to the board, which became known as the board-packing bill. It passed the House handily, but most senators, led by Levine and Morrell Gathright of Jefferson County, opposed it. The Senate tabled the bill, which meant that it would take two-thirds of the senators—twenty-four—to take it off the table and pass it. Senator Max Howell of Little Rock, the county’s senior senator, introduced a bill expanding the school board from six to nine members but providing for Little Rock voters to elect them. The Senate—notably including Levine—voted for it decisively, but Faubus persuaded the House to amend Howell’s bill to give the governor some power to influence the board expansion, then to pass it and return it to the Senate to acquiesce in the amendment.
The legislature was set to adjourn at noon on March 12 after passing the only remaining essential bill, the two-year appropriation for the Arkansas Highway Department, which had been held up over disputes about several elements of the agency’s spending. Howell felt compelled to get a final vote on his amended school-board bill, however, or at least he pretended to feel that way. Teacher contracts in Little Rock had to be formalized soon, and most of the Pulaski County delegation and much of the Senate wanted to go along with getting the disputed teacher contracts done if they could avoid a vote that might be construed to be pro-integration.
Levine took the floor thirty-six minutes until automatic adjournment. It quickly became clear that he intended to filibuster until adjournment to kill the House-amended board-expansion bill. The chamber became a circus as most of the members joined in the fun. Senator Guy H. “Mutt” Jones, the diminutive orator from Conway (Faulkner County), accompanied Levine in the Senate well with his harmonica, as he did at most sine die adjournments. Arkansas Gazette reporter Roy Reed described the thirty-three minutes: “Many of the senators entered into the thing jovially, some asking humorous questions of Levine, others bringing newspapers and reading material to him to help him pad out the time.” Bobbie Forster, the Arkansas Democrat reporter, recorded the jollity in the chamber as Levine read portions of the school-board bill, repeating some very slowly for emphasis; praised public schools; discussed latitude and longitude; talked about his wife; and asked why his colleagues were letting her sit alone near his desk. Senators were milling about the floor or in the quiet room, but a couple of them joined his wife.
Faubus’s legislative aide, William J. Smith, finally came into the Senate well and huddled with Lieutenant Governor Nathan Gordon and others. Gordon interrupted Levine to announce that an agreement had been reached on the highway bill. Levine left the lectern, and Howell withdrew his motion to concur in the House amendment to his school bill, which killed it. The Senate in a few seconds passed the highway bill, and Gordon gaveled the 1959 session to an end.
In the five months afterward, the three white supremacists on the school board fired the forty-four teachers and administrators; the U.S. Supreme Court declared Faubus’s school-closing law unconstitutional; Little Rock conducted a special school-board recall election in which the moderates were reelected, the segregationists were defeated, and the county board of supervisors appointed three other moderates to take their place; and the school board rehired the fired teachers and reopened schools early to deter Faubus from formulating another plan to keep the schools closed or segregated.
Earlier in the spring legislative session, the legislature had proposed a constitutional amendment, backed by Faubus but opposed by Levine and a few others, that would have allowed communities to vote to close their schools to avoid integration. Arkansas voters defeated the amendment at the 1960 general election. Levine made a speech to the American Association of University Women in which he said the big issue was not race but instead public education. He said it was “almost sinful” to have to defend the public schools but that public education was the most essential element of democracy. The Arkansas Constitution, he said, had many shortcomings but not in the field of education, which it said must always be maintained for every child in the state.
Levine did not seek reelection in 1960 but rather ran for an open district judicial seat. He narrowly lost a three-way race in the Democratic primaries. He remained a leader in the Democratic Party, serving as a delegate to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where he supported Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey for vice president on the ticket with President Lyndon Johnson. In campaign advertisements in 1962, Arkansas Supreme Court justice George Rose Smith touted the support of Sam Levine.
Levine died of a heart attack on May 21, 1965. He is buried in Congregation Anshe Emeth Jewish Cemetery at Pine Bluff. The Arkansas Gazette published an editorial mourning his death, which recalled his famous filibuster and ended: “He continued the general practice of law; his office was still where poor people went who had problems with the government, or anybody else. And then, a little more than six years after the small filibuster, he died. Sometime fairly soon we may be ready to forgive him for having saved our schools.”
For additional information:
“Former Legislator Sam Levine Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, May 22, 1965, p. 8A.
Forster, Bobbie. “Highway Fund Bill Okayed, but Senate Filibuster Kills Additions to School Board.” Arkansas Democrat, March 12, 1959, pp. 1A, 2A.
Jacoway, Elizabeth. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation. New York: Free Press, 2007.
Reed, Roy. “Highway Bill Beats Clock; Levine Kills Howell Plan.” Arkansas Gazette, March 13, 1959, pp. 1A, 2A.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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