Political Issues and Controversies

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Labor Movement

Soon after Arkansas’s 1836 admission to the Union, wage workers in the state began uniting for their mutual economic and political benefit. Throughout the nineteenth century, these associations—commonly called trade unions—tended to be short lived and unstable, reflecting the dominance of agriculture in Arkansas’s economy. But in the twentieth century, as industry began gaining a toehold in the state, the labor movement began improving the lives of wage workers through collective bargaining and by securing passage of legislation in the interest of all workers. Although weak when compared with their counterparts in more industrialized states, Arkansas’s trade unions were at the forefront of every significant wave of reform in the state during the twentieth century—the Progressive Era, the New Deal, …

LGBTQ+ Movement

The social movement in Arkansas in support of rights for LGBTQ+ people (an umbrella term that covers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and more; LGBT was also used in the past) has historically been represented by such legal organizations as Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Lambda Legal, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). However, recent years have seen an increasing organization of LGBTQ+ people in Arkansas, primarily in the emergence of student groups at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and other institutions of higher education. Legal Issues and Context The first reference to homosexuality in the bound index to the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette is from October 1973, four years after the Stonewall Riots …

Little Rock Censor Board

aka: Little Rock Board of Censors
The Little Rock Censor Board operated in Arkansas’s capital city for nearly seventy years trying to regulate forms of entertainment—from literature to movies—to protect citizens from influences perceived to be immoral. As social mores changed and the legality of the board was challenged, it saw its influence diminish, until it quietly disbanded. In the early twentieth century, officials around the country attempted to censor salacious or obscene materials. For example, Memphis’s Board of Censors, created in 1911, was notorious for its harsh rulings, and Maryland established its censor board in 1916, which remained influential until its demise in 198l. The Little Rock Censor Board was created in 1911 by Mayor John S. Odom and the city council in response to …

Logan County Draft War

aka: Franklin County Draft War
The Logan County Draft War was an episode of armed draft resistance in Arkansas during World War I. Following on the heels of the more infamous Cleburne County Draft War, the Logan County incident—which actually took place predominately in Franklin County, and later in the wooded area near Mount Magazine—followed the familiar pattern of previous draft skirmishes in which a local posse encountered suspected draft evaders, resulting in a shootout, a death, and then a wider manhunt. On August 5, 1918, authorities from Ozark (Franklin County) assembled a posse of seven men led by a Constable Horton to investigate the farmhouse of J. H. Benson near Cecil (Franklin County). It is unclear from the sources whether this posse was formed …

Malaria Control Projects in Southeast Arkansas

Two malaria control demonstration projects in southeast Arkansas during the Progressive Era showed not only that the disease could be controlled, but also that control was economically feasible. The project in Crossett (Ashley County) targeted mosquito breeding sites, while the one in the Lake Village (Chicot County) area studied protection by mechanical means. Both were noteworthy successes, though local governments often failed to follow up on those successes. Malaria control was a logical extension of hookworm eradication projects sponsored by the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease. In 1915, Dr. Wickliffe Rose, who headed the commission, said that “malaria was responsible for more sickness and death than all other diseases combined.” The disease sapped the vitality of …

McCool, John Thurman (Murder of)

John Thurman McCool, a prominent businessman of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), was rebuilding his life after serving a prison sentence for forging state treasury warrants when he was shot to death outside Sheridan (Grant County) in 1962. McCool’s murder remains unsolved. The mystery surrounding the killing and the strange circumstances of his life in the six years prior to it made the murder a subject of rumors of a mob killing, of revenge, and of silencing a man who knew too much, although no evidence of any of those motives ever emerged. Thurman McCool was born in Sheridan on August 18, 1913. He grew up in Pine Bluff, married a Pine Bluff woman, and was prominent in the business and …

Merci Train

aka: Gratitude Train
aka: Train de Reconnaissance
Also known as the “Thank You” Train, the Merci Train was the response of the people of France to food shipments sent by Arkansas and other American states to post–World War II western Europe. In 1947, radio commentator and syndicated columnist Drew Pearson launched the effort to send food to Europe. Local efforts were organized through the Chamber of Commerce of North Little Rock (Pulaski County). Thanks to rice growers and farmers throughout the state, three and a half train boxcar loads of rice and half a boxcar load of wheat were collected, plus one boxcar load of canned goods gathered by Lions Clubs in northwestern Arkansas. These five boxcars of food were shipped, free of charge, by Rock Island …

Militia Wars of 1868–1869

A series of conflicts fought across the state in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Militia Wars were a response to the wave of violence that swept Arkansas after the adoption of the Constitution of 1868. With the capture of Little Rock (Pulaski County) by Federal forces in 1863, Isaac Murphy was selected as the provisional governor of the state, taking office in March 1864. With little influence beyond the capital and other isolated Union outposts, Murphy was unable to consolidate his power before the end of the war. In 1866, almost the entire Unionist state government was defeated for reelection. However, Murphy and the secretary of state, who were serving four-year terms that expired in 1868, survived. The …

Missouri Bootheel

While most of Arkansas’s boundary with Missouri runs along the line of latitude thirty-six degrees, thirty minutes north, in the extreme northeast corner, the border between states extends downward along the St. Francis River to thirty-six degrees north, where it then runs east to the Mississippi River. A straight line boundary, as was originally envisioned, would have added some 980 square miles, or 627,000 acres, to the state of Arkansas. Instead, Missouri gained a “bootheel.” Culturally and economically, the region has much more in common with Arkansas than with the rest of Missouri. “Arkansas in denial” is how area residents explain their anomalous condition. Carl Bailey (1894–1948), the thirty-first governor of Arkansas and a native of Bernie, Missouri, was one …

Municipal Designations

The State of Arkansas recognizes its incorporated communities in three separate categories: cities of the first class (or first-class cities), cities of the second class (or second-class cities), and towns. These categories are mostly determined by the population of the communities and the size of the city or town government. According to the Arkansas Municipal League, there are 502 incorporated cities and towns in Arkansas as of October 2019. According to Arkansas statutes as of 2019, a first-class city has more than 2,500 residents (although a second-class city with more than 1,500 residents may vote to become a first-class city). A second-class city has from 500 to 2,500 residents (although a town may vote to become a second-class city). A town …

Newton County Draft War

The Newton County Draft War was the last armed incident of the documented Arkansas draft wars, as well as one of the most colorful, as word of the “Cecil Cove Slackers” spread to national publications. In 1918, Newton County—located in the Ozark Mountains—was one of the most isolated and least developed regions in Arkansas, not yet crossed by railroads or serviceable highways. The Cecil Cove region—twelve miles long and eight miles wide, bordered by steep cliffs and caves, and only traversable by foot or mule—was an exceptional hiding spot. In the last months of World War I, several draft resistors in the region successfully eluded authorities. Later interviews with the deserters outline a now familiar refrain for draft resistance in …

Panic of 1893

In 1893, a national financial crisis led to the closing of businesses and banks in Arkansas. The crisis in banking ended with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act late in 1893. The depression continued until 1897. During this period, agricultural prices declined steeply in the state. Even before the panic, financial markets were not sound, and the state’s economy was moribund. In 1891, the legislature voted to postpone funding of the state’s representation at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and never returned to the issue. Arkansas’s participation was instead privately funded by the Little Rock Board of Trade. On January 18, 1893, the Arkansas Gazette reported “a financial flurry” in response to a run on First National Bank …

Perry County War of 1881

The Perry County War is the common name given to a brief period of violence that erupted in Perryville (Perry County) in the summer of 1881. The general lawlessness, including the murder of the local newspaper editor, resulted in the governor sending the militia to calm the situation. In actuality, the 1881 events were a second eruption of an ongoing settling of political differences in Perry County dating back to the Civil War. Like many counties in Arkansas during the Civil War, Perry County was divided by conflicting loyalties. The mountainous western sections of the county aligned with the Union, while whites in the eastern half, where most of the enslaved people lived, held Confederate sympathies. These philosophical differences continued …

Pike-Roane Duel

aka: Roane-Pike Duel
The Pike-Roane Duel was fought in 1847 between Albert Pike and John Selden Roane. Albert Pike was originally a Bostonian who left the Northeast to explore the West and eventually ended up in Arkansas on an expedition. He decided to stay, practicing law and becoming a prominent Arkansan. John Selden Roane, born in Tennessee, moved to Arkansas to study law and eventually was elected governor. Both Pike and Roane fought in the Mexican War in the 1840s. Pike was so disappointed with the Arkansas regiment’s performance in the Battle of Buena Vista (including events leading to the battlefield death of former Arkansas governor and congressman Archibald Yell) that he wrote a letter on March 8, 1847, to the editor of …

Plumerville Conflict of 1886–1892

During the late 1880s, electoral politics in Conway County turned violent, resulting in serious injuries and several deaths. In the Plumerville (Conway County) community, actions such as voter intimidation and the theft of ballot boxes were flagrant and seemingly condoned by public officials. The violence became widely known and was the subject of a federal investigation after the assassination of a congressional candidate, John Clayton. A pattern of local political affiliations and latent hostilities toward other factions developed and remained well into the twentieth century. While the political conflict renewed itself after the 1884 election, the underlying causes date back to the pre–Civil War days. Conway County was a small version of Arkansas in terms of geographic culture and economics. …

Polk County Draft War

The Polk County Draft War was the first of five documented episodes of armed resistance to the draft in Arkansas during World War I (four of which were violent). The Selective Service Act of 1917 introduced forced conscription to Arkansas, but efforts to apprehend and/or punish draft evaders did not begin in earnest until the spring of 1918, likely due to a greater demand for military manpower. The ensuing crackdown on draft evasion sparked a series of so-called draft wars, brief episodes of armed defiance by close-knit family groups against authorities. These acts of resistance often occurred in isolated, mountainous regions of the state, where socialism and/or organized labor had found purchase. On May 25, 1918, Sheriff H. W. Finger …

Poll Tax

A poll tax is a uniform per capita tax levied upon a specified class of people often made a requirement for the right to vote. In Arkansas, use of a poll tax was as old as the state itself. Arkansas’s first state constitution, adopted in 1836, authorized the imposition of a poll tax to be used for county purposes, and a subsequent state statute authorized county courts to collect a poll tax not to exceed one dollar per year from every free male inhabitant between the ages of twenty-one and sixty. Provisions similar to that in the 1836 constitution were included in the subsequent Confederate state constitution of 1861 and Unionist state constitution of 1864 (the Confederate constitution allowed the …

Poorhouses

aka: Poor Farms
The use of the poorhouse came to the United States during the nineteenth century and was based on a model used in England during the Industrial Revolution. A poorhouse was meant to be a place to which people could be sent if they were not able to support themselves financially. It was believed that these institutions would be a cheaper alternative to the “outdoor relief” (relief requested from a community) that a community sometimes provided. Although this may not have been the case, the poorhouse was a significant institution in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, providing relief to the poor prior to the establishment of welfare systems. The aiding of a pauper by another person in the community was …

Pope County Militia War

The Pope County Militia War was a conflict between the Reconstruction government of the state and county partisans, some of them former Confederates, who opposed Reconstruction. It entailed the assassination of many local officials and is often seen as a prelude to the Brooks-Baxter War of 1874. Pope County, lacking a large slave economy, had been divided in terms of loyalty during the Civil War, and those divisions ran high even after the formal end of hostilities. In 1865, Governor Isaac Murphy appointed Archibald Dodson Napier, a former Federal officer, as sheriff of Pope County. On October 25, 1865, he and his deputy, Albert M. Parks, were both shot from ambush as they rode horseback along the old Springfield road …

Pope-Noland Duel

The Pope-Noland Duel took place in Arkansas Territory in 1831 between William Fontaine Pope and Charles Fenton Mercer (Fent) Noland. Little is known about Pope other than that he was the nephew and secretary of territorial governor John Pope, who was a member of the Democratic Party during his tenure in Arkansas. Fent Noland originally hailed from Virginia and was the son of politician and plantation owner William Noland, who drafted Virginia’s anti-dueling law. As a young lawyer, Fent Noland was mentored by James Woodson Bates, who was the first Arkansas territorial representative to the U.S. Congress, and went on to become a well-known writer who regularly published in the New York–based Spirit of the Times. The political scene in …

Populist Movement

aka: People's Party
aka: Populism
During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, American farmers faced a variety of economic problems including rising business costs, a scarcity of credit, and falling crop prices. Frustrated farmers formed organizations to address such problems and ultimately turned to independent or third-party politics. These efforts coalesced in the 1890s with the founding of the People’s (or Populist) Party, which drew most of its support in the West and the South. In Arkansas, the third-party movement actually peaked between 1888 and 1890 under the guise of the Union Labor Party (ULP), which lasted fewer years than the Populist Party but won more support, unlike in other states. Origins of the Populist Movement The organized farmers’ movement in Arkansas began …

Prison Reform

The poor condition of Arkansas prisons has long been a subject of controversy in the state. The national prison system as a whole, and particularly in the South, was substandard up to the 1960s. Repeated scandal, evidence of extensive violence and rape, and violation of human rights brought national attention to Arkansas, placing pressure on the state to reform its penal system. Through a series of reforms beginning in 1967, the Arkansas prison system greatly improved, although issues of overcrowding still plague the state today. Calls for prison reform began in the late nineteenth century, especially with regard to the system of convict leasing, whereby prisoners were rented out to labor for private enterprises, often in horrible conditions. Governor George …

Prohibition

Prohibition, the effort to limit or ban the sale and consumption of alcohol, has been prevalent since Arkansas’s territorial period. The state has attempted to limit use of alcoholic beverages through legal efforts such as establishing “dry” counties, as well as through extra-legal measures such as destroying whiskey distilleries. Since achieving statehood in 1836, prohibition has consistently been a political and public health issue. As early as the 1760s, European settlers at Arkansas Post (Arkansas County) took steps to limit alcohol use by Quapaw Indians living in the area. When the area was under Spanish control, British traders successfully maneuvered to trade goods and spirits in Arkansas, plying the Quapaw with rum despite a Spanish law prohibiting the furnishing of …

Red Scare (1919–1920)

aka: First Red Scare
In the United States, the First Red Scare (1919–1920) began shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik Russian Revolution. Tensions ran high after this revolution because many Americans feared that if a workers’ revolution were possible in Russia, it might also be possible in the United States. While the First Red Scare was backed by an anti-communist attitude, it focused predominately on labor rebellions and perceived political radicalism. While Arkansas was not immune to the Red Scare, it did see comparatively little labor conflict. Nationally, 7,041 strikes occurred during the 1919–1920 period; Arkansas contributed only twenty-two of those strikes. This was not because Arkansas had a weak labor movement. In fact, Arkansas was home to the Little Rock Typographical Union, railroad unions, and sharecropper …

Rural Electrification

The first major effort to provide electricity to rural Arkansas began with the passage of the federal Rural Electrification Act in 1936, creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). The agency was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to improve the economic condition of farmers hit hard by depression, flood, and drought. It provided twenty-five-year loans at three percent interest for constructing power lines in rural areas. With REA loans, farmers could afford to electrify their homes and farms. Electrified farms, officials believed, would improve farm incomes and raise farm standards of living. Providing electricity to Arkansas farms and communities of fewer than 2,500 people was costly. Rural areas averaged fewer than five customers per mile of electric …

Searcy County Draft War

Coming on the heels of a notorious case of World War I–era draft resistance in Polk County was the less notable Searcy County Draft War in Leslie (Searcy County). Like other such so-called draft wars in Arkansas, the Searcy County incident involved a family/clan living in an isolated, mountainous region. In August 1917, a year prior to the incident, the youngest son of the local Goodwin family, Miller Goodwin, had committed suicide rather than enter into military service. The Arkansas Gazette reported that he had left his home to report for military service in Marshall (Searcy County). During the trip, he stopped at a neighbor’s house at breakfast time. Shortly after his arrival, he shot himself. Suicides such as that …

Secession Convention

On May 6, 1861, a body of men chosen by Arkansas voters in an election held on February 18, 1861, voted to remove Arkansas from the United States of America. Arkansas’s secession ultimately failed in 1865 due to the military defeat of the Confederacy. States’ rights versus the national government had a contentious history prior to 1861. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 suggested that states retained powers to protect citizens from the federal government, and the Hartford Convention of 1814–1815 paved the way for the Doctrine of Nullification that South Carolina unsuccessfully invoked in 1832. States’ rights debates—notably among U.S. senators Daniel Webster, Robert Y. Hayne, and John C. Calhoun—led to a theoretical acceptance of this …

Slavery

American chattel slavery was a unique institution that emerged in the English colonies in America in the seventeenth century. Enslaved peoples were held involuntarily as property by slave owners who controlled their labor and freedom. By the eighteenth century, slavery had assumed racial tones as white colonists had come to consider only Africans who had been brought to the Americas as peoples who could be enslaved. Invariably, the earliest white settlers who moved into Arkansas brought slave property with them to work the area’s rich lands, and slavery became an integral part of local life. Slaves played a major role in the economic growth of the territory and state. Their presence contributed to the peculiar formation of local culture and …

Sundown Towns

aka: Racial Cleansing
Between 1890 and 1968, thousands of towns across the United States drove out their black populations or took steps to forbid African Americans from living in them. Thus were created “sundown towns,” so named because many marked their city limits with signs typically reading, “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In Alix”—an Arkansas town in Franklin County that had such a sign around 1970. By 1970, when sundown towns were at their peak, more than half of all incorporated communities outside the traditional South probably excluded African Americans, including probably more than a hundred towns in the northwestern two-thirds of Arkansas. White residents of the traditional South rarely engaged in the practice; they kept African Americans down …

Sunken Lands

The term “sunken lands” (also called “sunk lands” or “sunk country”) refers to parts of Craighead, Mississippi, and Poinsett counties that shifted and sank during the New Madrid earthquakes which took place between 1811 and 1812. Because the land was submerged under water, claims to property based on riparian rights by large landowners generated controversy which lasted decades and ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court. When the New Madrid earthquakes began in December 1811, the territory which is today northeastern Arkansas was sparsely populated. An early chronicler described the earthquakes’ effect as the ground moving like waves on the land, when suddenly the earth would burst, sending up huge volumes of water and sand, leaving chasms where the earth had …

Term Limits

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the American political scene was swept by a growing anti-incumbent fervor. Individually, incumbents at both the state and national level continued to win reelection in overwhelming numbers, but reformers sought to address the discontent by seeking legislation and constitutional amendments, usually through statewide referenda, that sought to impose strict term limits on office holders at both the state and congressional levels. Between 1990 and 1994, more than twenty states, including Arkansas, chose to impose limits on the length of time their representatives could serve in both the state legislature and in Congress. In a November 1992 referendum, the Arkansas electorate approved a measure that became Amendment 73 to the state constitution, which imposed …