William Jennings (Bill) Smith (1908–2000)

William Jennings (Bill) Smith was a lawyer and civic leader in Little Rock (Pulaski County) whose close association with five governors gave him great influence over the state’s public affairs for forty years, including the desegregation of Central High School and its aftermath. He served briefly as a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court upon the resignation of Justice Minor W. Millwee in the fall of 1958. Smith became the managing partner of the law firm that he had joined in 1946 and developed it into the state’s largest law firm, known at that time as Mehaffy, Smith and Williams. In 2022, the firm, still the state’s largest, was Friday, Eldredge and Clark.

Bill Smith was born on October 14, 1908, in Spurgeon, Missouri, one of seven children of Richard Hansel Smith, who was a railroad worker, and Ella Jones Smith, who was a niece of Daniel Webster Jones, Arkansas’s governor from 1897 to 1901. They named the child after William Jennings Bryan, the great populist Democrat and orator who lost three races for president. When Smith was born, Bryan was running for president on a pro-labor platform, ultimately losing to William Howard Taft.

The family moved to Corsicana, Texas, where Smith went to school, and then moved to Texarkana (Miller County). He attended several colleges and married Irma Holloway. He received a law degree from Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, and passed the Arkansas bar exam in 1937.

While he was in college, he worked as an agent for a railroad union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, and then became its attorney for southeastern states. The union became a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. As a powerful attorney many years later, Smith liked to pull his old union card from his billfold and show it. Although he and his firm were largely management representatives, he said he was a union man at heart, declaring, “I believe in good working conditions and good wages.” For much of his legal career, his biggest client was Missouri Pacific Railroad.

His first political connection was with Governor Carl Bailey, who was elected in 1936. Smith helped draft the 1938 law creating the state Workers Compensation Commission, a three-member board—a manager, a worker, and a public representative—that adjudicates claims by injured workers. Smith was the first labor representative on the commission in 1940. After Smith returned from a stint with the Army Air Corps during World War II, Bailey’s nemesis, Homer Adkins (who defeated Bailey in 1940) appointed Smith to the Workers Compensation Commission again.

Smith proved adept at crossing those kinds of political divides. He supported David D. Terry in the 1944 governor’s race, but the victor, Ben T. Laney, asked him to be his executive secretary and legal counsel. Smith helped Frank Storey and Julian Hogan in 1945 draft the two acts that overhauled Arkansas’s chaotic revenue and accounting system—the Revenue Stabilization Act and the General Accounting and Budgetary Procedures Act, which together prevented the state from ever running a deficit in any year. He went to New York with Laney in 1947 to meet with bond-house executives to persuade them that, owing to the state’s fiscal reforms, they should restore the state’s wrecked credit. It saved schools and other public institutions millions of dollars in the succeeding years.

Governor Francis Cherry, who was elected in 1952, made Smith his personal legal counsel and legislative assistant. His prowess in persuading lawmakers to go along with a governor’s proposals was already legendary. When Orval Faubus defeated Cherry in 1954, Smith was out of favor for two years, but as he began a new term in 1957, Faubus summoned the lawyer to help with his legislative program, which included tax increases and more school aid, and then, as the new school term approached, with the intensifying dilemma of school integration that had been ordered by the federal courts at Little Rock.

Smith accompanied Faubus in his discussions with education officials and others about whether to try to stop the integration. Faubus wanted to use the risk of violence at the school to justify ordering the school not to accept the Black students until the question of whether the Arkansas Constitution required integration was decided by a “proper authority.” Smith apparently advised him that he should first enforce the Black students’ rights by allowing them to enter school but then step in when his warnings of violence were borne out. Owing to pressure from Jim Johnson, a segregationist hotspur whom he had defeated in 1956, and also by a visit by Georgia’s governor, Marvin Griffin, Faubus became persuaded that he could not wait without endangering his political future and ordered the National Guard to guard the entrances of the high school and prevent the Black students from entering.

Although Smith’s counsel was always private, and he never appeared in public on Faubus’s behalf, he was a constant presence when Faubus met with President Eisenhower and Attorney General Herbert Brownell to try to resolve the crisis and also in drafting and passing some of the legislation that sought to preserve segregation. But the worst of the acts passed by the Arkansas General Assembly were authored by the state attorney general, Bruce Bennett, and were usually struck down by federal courts or the Arkansas Supreme Court. If Smith advised Faubus against any of his segregation stands, he never articulated it. He considered it his job to draft bills that stood the best chance of being enacted and upheld.

When Jim Johnson defeated Justice Minor Millwee in the Democratic primary in 1958 and Millwee resigned the seat before the end of the year to join faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County), Faubus appointed Smith to the judicial seat for the remaining weeks in Millwee’s term.

He wrote most of the important acts passed during Faubus’s last five terms, including legislation that created industrial-financing mechanisms, Act 9 and Amendment 49. He also wrote Amendment 51, which authorized voting machines, and ran the initiative campaign that ratified it. As Faubus’s legislative secretary, he was a constant presence on the legislative floors, crouching beside lawmakers’ desks, jotting into a notebook what their political needs were and then counseling the governor on how to meet them. Nearly every bill proposed by any of Smith’s governors passed.

In the community, Smith was involved in scores of enterprises, such as the development of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and the building of a new governor’s mansion, a new state mental hospital, and shopping malls. He taught medical jurisprudence at UAMS for many years.

At the law firm, Smith’s office was near the entrance, and his door was always open so that he could monitor when every lawyer showed up for work and he could see that they were elegantly attired, with good neckties and shoeshines. He conducted full staff meetings early every Tuesday morning in which all the firm’s business was discussed, and every lawyer had to participate, even if only to say, “Nothing today, Judge.”

Smith retired in 1974. He died on May 2, 2000, and is buried in Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.

For additional information:
Oman, Noel. “William Jennings Smith, 91, Was ‘in Charge of Influence.’” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 5, 2000, pp. 1A, 11A.

“Reminiscences of William J. Smith: Oral History, 1971.” Eisenhower Administration Project, Columbia University Center for Oral History, New York City.

“William Smith, ‘Other Governor,’ Dies at Age 91.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 4, 2000, pp. 1B, 7B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 08/03/2022

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