In 2002, four years after Dale Bumpers’ retirement from the United States Senate, the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas recorded an 11-hour oral history with him.The interviews illustrate a strength—his storytelling ability—that produced a successful 28-year career in politics, as governor and senator. The interviews, done by Ernest Dumas, cover not only his political career but his life in little Charleston, Ark., where he was the only lawyer. Bumpers died Friday at the age of 90. Here are a few of those stories about growing up and coming of age in Franklin County.
Your father took you to Booneville to see Roosevelt. That was in ’36?
Bumpers: ’38. Hattie Caraway was running for re-election for the U.S. Senate.
He was there to endorse Hattie Caraway?
Bumpers: That was the purpose of the trip. He was campaigning for her. It was the Rock Island train, which at that time ran from Memphis to Booneville, to Amarillo. The Rock Island ran from Memphis to Amarillo and it was later abandoned. That became a big issue in our house. Dad wanted to take his two sons, not his daughter, because it was unthinkable that a woman would be involved in politics, even though Hattie Caraway was the purpose for his being there. But he took Carroll and me to see the president. I was twelve years old. We were literally taught that when we died we were going to Franklin Roosevelt.
When he came out on the back of that train, it was just god-like. I had more goose bumps on me than I’ve ever had in my life. I just could not believe that the president of the United States, and especially Franklin Roosevelt, was standing in front of us. It was a momentous occasion, but when he came out of the railroad car onto the platform he was obviously holding on to the arm of his son James. Everybody called him Jimmy, but he was James. I can remember very well tugging on my father’s arm and saying, “Dad, what’s wrong with him?” I knew there was something wrong with him. And he said, “I’ll tell you later.”
He was only there for about ten minutes. He didn’t say anything momentous. I don’t remember a single thing he said except “Mrs. Caraway has told me that this magnificent mountain in the background,” which was Mount Magazine, “is the tallest point between the Rockies and the Alleghenies.” And everybody just went wild, applauding. Well, of course, that was just a myth; there are all kinds of mountains between the Rockies and the Alleghenies a lot taller than Mount Magazine, but we didn’t know that. That was an Arkansas myth. That was the only thing I remember him talking about.
I can remember the sadness I felt as that train pulled away because I knew I would never see another president. I felt so sad that I was going to have to go back to my real life. I was also sad that he hadn’t recognized me or my father. I thought he would probably call my father by name since he had been in the legislature. You know, I thought that was a big deal. So I was sort of saddened by all of that. But on the way home, I tugged on my father’s arm because he had said I’ll tell you later. So on the way home he says, “Now boys, let me tell you something. Franklin Roosevelt had polio when he was 39 years old and he can’t walk. He has twelve pounds of steel braces on his legs.” And he said, “If Franklin Roosevelt can’t even walk and has to carry twelve pounds of steel on his legs, you boys have good minds and good bodies and there is no reason why you can’t be president.” I’ve said a lot of times that for my father to say that was tantamount to being nominated.
Let’s go back. I want you to tell the story about when you were addressing some high school students and you used that Biltmore story.
Bumpers: Well, it was just another case of where I was talking to a high school body and I told them the story about the Biltmore Hotel. [His father had taken him the Los Angeles hotel in 1937 for a hardware dealers convention and he recalled having been embarrassed by his shabby homemade clothes amid the finery of guests in the big hall.] The same story I’d told dozens of times. During the question-and-answer session down in front of me in about the middle of the auditorium—I guess there were about eight hundred, nine hundred kids in the audience—was this good-looking young man, blond. I later learned he was the quarterback on the football team. All the girls thought he was the cutest thing going. He stood up and asked the first question. He said, “Senator, are you any relation to Claude Bumpers?” and everybody in that auditorium just burst out laughing.
When they settled down, I said: “I don’t know whether I am or not, but I’ve never run across a Bumpers that I wasn’t’ related to in some way or another. Some of them are u-r-s; some are e-r-s, u-s and so on. But we all came from the same place.” And I said: “Is Claude Bumpers in the student body? Where is he? Could he stand up?” Which I shouldn’t have done. But down to my left close to the front, this young, bedraggled fifteen-year-old kid in overalls—you could tell he hadn’t had a bath in forever—stood up. And when he stood up, everybody laughed again. He was obviously the object of a lot of ridicule.
So he was pretty embarrassed and I told this student body: “You know, I can remember that, when I was a child, after school I would go to the library. I didn’t stop in the café or the drugstore, because the teachers were all well dressed and I was in overalls and I was really embarrassed by the way I looked and the clothes I wore. And I walked on up to the library. I was determined to be somebody. And I thought the library was the best place to start. It saved me the humiliation of feeling the way I felt in the presence of other people who were better dressed.” And I said, “You know, Claude Bumpers may be sitting down there right now thinking that I’m going to overcome all of this and I’m going to become somebody. Maybe a lot better somebody than a lot of the people in this student body. You, son, you’re not ever going to make it if you make it at the expense of other people.”
I’m not sure those were my exact words, but you get the message. You could have heard a pin drop in that room. I saw the superintendent of that school later, and he told me it was one of the most dramatic moments in the history of that school and it really had a sobering effect on that student body. That’s the only time I’ve ever consciously put down a student. I was so offended. This kid was obviously a big hero on campus and for him to be making fun of the most bedraggled kid in the student body was really offensive to me. I just wanted them to know that this guy may be selling papers, and this other guy may be president of the paper company. He may be planning something right now to overcome all of this. I hope he is.
Tell me a little bit about the town of Charleston. A lot of prejudice there, as there was in any small town in Arkansas—in the South. Tell me the story about the band director.
Bumpers: Well, in order to tell you the story about the band director, I probably need to tell you a story about another man in town first. Sure. Bumpers: Wayne Fry. I never knew his name was Wayne until I was an adult because everybody called him Sis. It never occurred to me why everybody called him Sis. I mean we used to call people sissies. Some guy who wasn’t an athlete, we’d call him a sissy or something. But Wayne’s nickname was Sis. He was the manager of a clothing store there. A clothing and dry goods store called Seaman’s. There were about six, seven or eight Seaman’s stores in western Arkansas. He managed the Charleston store. He was a devout Baptist. He was one of the best-liked men I have ever known in my life; people adored him. But it was assumed in the community that he was a homosexual. There was some debate among the spinsters as to whether that was true or not, but it was just an assumption with most people that he was gay. But nobody cared. He sat on the front row of the Baptist Church each Sunday. He was a deacon. As I say, he was universally liked.
On the other hand, we didn’t have a band and we played a town in football, a little town about half the size of Charleston, believe it or not. They had a band that was just something. A marvel. Lo and behold, Charleston goes over and hires this band director. He comes to Charleston with his wife and two students from the town he came from. One was a clarinet player and one was a trumpet player. We formed a band and it was the first one that Charleston had ever had. To make a long story short, he was a wonderful band director. The first thing you know, we were winning every contest we entered. Even went to Hot Springs to the state band contest. We were
class C, but we won a blue ribbon. We learned classical music. We used to go to his house. He had a great collection of classical music. That’s where I learned to love classical music and opera, going to his house at night when I was just a sophomore in high school. But there had been suspicions from the very beginning that he, too, might be homosexual. Nobody ever proved it as far as I knew; I was just a child and didn’t really know what was going on. But he was fired and left and I made the point a lot of times. There was Sis Fry, whom everybody adored. Everybody assumed he was homosexual but everybody adored him. And they accepted him. Accepted him and loved him. But here was a man who may or may not have been a homosexual.
But an outsider.
Bumpers: An outsider. And outsiders just couldn’t be trusted. The assumption was that he was, and therefore had to go. I’ve thought a thousand times about how homophobia works.
After high school it’s clear you are going to be drafted and you went into the Marine Corps.
Bumpers: Well, when I graduated from high school I went to summer school at the University [of Arkansas]. Because I wanted to get as much education as I could before I got drafted. My father wanted me to be a lawyer; and he wanted my brother to be a lawyer; there was never any mistaking what we were supposed to be. The reason my father wanted us to be lawyers was that he thought that was the best background to go into politics. In order to be a lawyer, he thought you ought to know a lot of Latin. So that summer at the University of Arkansas, believe it or not, I took 15 hours, 12 of which was Latin. Twelve hours of Latin. We met twice a day, an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, five days a week. And three hours of English. It was unbelievable. We translated Caesar, Cicero and Ovid that summer. I couldn’t sleep. I translated Latin in my sleep. It was unbelievable.
But then that fall, I could see that I was probably not going to finish that semester but I tried. I went back and attended that fall but I had to come to Little Rock for a physical that October. I was in perfect physical condition. I got my 1A status so I never did go back to Fayetteville after that. I went into the Marine Corps.
If I could tell this story about going into the Marine Corps—I’m not sure I can tell it without crying. This was November 3rd and I was supposed to be in Little Rock at 8 o’clock in the morning for induction. Charleston had a bus that came through town; a lot of people rode the bus back in those days. The Crescent Drugstore was the bus station. So we set the alarm for 2 a.m. to catch the bus at the drugstore. The drugstore was closed and it was a chilly morning. We stood kind of shivering in the entryway of the drugstore, waiting for the bus. We got there about 3 o’clock and the bus was supposed to be there at 3 o’clock. So we stood there making idle chatter and talk, and I was really nervous. “I’ll write, you be sure and write often.” And then the lights of the bus. You could see the glare up at the old school house. It was, I don’t know, close to a half of a mile away. You could see the glare of the lights and then the bus comes crashing over the hill, the lights. He pulled slowly up to the drugstore and my mother started really weeping, sobbing, crying “my baby, my baby…” I told you I couldn’t tell this story. And my father started kind of crying, too…
You’d never seen your daddy cry.
Bumpers: Never seen my father cry in my life. So, anyway, we hugged and carried on and the bus driver was very tolerant, and I got on the bus and sat about halfway back in the bus so I could wave goodbye as long as possible. As the bus pulled out we went roughly half a mile down the road until we got out of town. Everything took on a different feeling for me. There was the Methodist Church, our church. The Catholic Church on the left, where Betty and I smooched out in front of her house. Nixon Cemetery. All those things. I was wondering if I would ever see them again. It was not maybe the most, but certainly one of the most, powerful moments of my life. Because I really felt quite certain, going into the Marine Corps, where we were losing an awful lot of men island hopping in the South Pacific, trying to get closer and closer to Japan, with airfields. I just felt certain that I would never see them again. But that was a really powerful moment for me. Where were we, Ernie, going into that?
Well, as it happens I guess, you were about, headed to Japan when they dropped the [atomic] bombs.
Bumpers: When the war ended…
On your way to Japan…
Bumpers: Yes, I had been shipped from Cherry Point, North Carolina, a Marine Air Base in Cherry Point North Carolina to San Diego to ship out. Everybody, everything in this country was shifting to the West Coast for the ultimate invasion of Japan. I didn’t know where we were going to go and I do not know to this day what our ultimate destination was, but the first bomb dropped the day before we sailed. Incidentally, I went overseas in a small aircraft carrier. They were using every ship around to transport men and get them to Japan for the invasion. But, anyway, the second bomb dropped on our way. We had been at sea about three days and the second bomb dropped. That was in 1945, my 20th birthday…
Bumpers: Ernie, this is a political story. I got to Chicago [to enroll in the Northwestern University School of Law] on Sunday evening, and I went over to the dormitory. It was an eleven-story dormitory on the lake. The law school and the school of commerce and the medical school were all downtown on the lake. They’re not out in Evanston where the main campus is. I walked in there that night and it was just a dungeon. There wasn’t a soul around. I was lucky to find somebody to let me in my room. The place was dark. Anyway, the next day I met four or five guys and two or three of them mentioned that Henry Wallace was coming to town. He was running for president on the Progressive Party ticket.
And I didn’t want to vote for Truman or Dewey either one. I was thinking about voting for Henry Wallace. So I talked to these guys and said, “Henry Wallace is coming to town. He’s going to be out at Wrigley Field tomorrow night. Why don’t we go out and listen? See what’s going on?” So we did. About three of us, I guess, went out there. It was kind of a dull affair but there was a big crowd. I could be way off on this but I would say there could have been as many as fifteen thousand people there. They had a lot of entertainment but it was kind of a dull affair until Paul Robeson, the great Negro basso, who had been so famous in the stage show and the movie “Showboat,” appeared. He had sung “Old Man River” and he was famous for his voice and singing “Old Man River” in “Showboat.” But he had also pretty much committed to communism. He became very controversial in this country because of his politics. But, as I say, people considered him a communist at the time, so Paul Robeson comes out and sings “The Internationale,” which is the international communist hymn. He sang a couple of other songs; he didn’t sing “Old Man River.”
And, of course, I enjoyed that and I got to thinking. He was already so far to the left, people were already considering him to be a communist and I had visions of somebody taking a picture of me out there listening to this communist sing. That would torpedo my chances for president of the United States — something like Bill Clinton went through I guess. But I really thought about it at the time.
But Henry Wallace then came out of the centerfield wall at Wrigley Field — it’s a brick wall — in a Cadillac convertible. He was seated in the back and he circled the field. Everybody applauded, then there was a big truck bed, which was where he was going to speak. He was introduced by somebody, I don’t know who, and started talking. He had sort of a nasal twang; he had an unappealing voice. He was pretty much reading his speech. It was a dull speech and I was disappointed. First thing you know a few people got up to leave and it wasn’t long until there was a Leon Uris-sized exodus. People were just taking off, they were so disappointed. I was disappointed so it sort of threw me into a tailspin, because I didn’t know whom I was going to vote for after that.
Later that fall, my brother came home from Harvard and I came home from Chicago. We had voted absentee. There was another man in the race, one of those quadrennial candidates, named Norman Thomas.
Bumpers: An avowed socialist. Most people didn’t differentiate between socialism and communism. But Norman Thomas today would probably be considered a pretty liberal guy, but not a radical. I didn’t want to vote for Harry Truman and I didn’t want to vote for Dewey. I couldn’t imagine a man with a Hitlerian mustache [Dewey] so soon after World War II thinking he was going to be president. He was a dull candidate,too, but anyway Carroll and I had talked about whom we were going to vote for and we talked about Norman Thomas. Of course, we were real mavericks. Dad was chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Committee. As such, he and the Republican counterpart were in charge of counting the ballots, the absentee ballots, and he told us at dinner one night when we were home for Christmas about this one vote for Norman Thomas. Carroll and I were just eating, feigning indifference like we didn’t know what in the world he was talking about. He would have been crushed, you know, if the community thought he had raised a couple of communists—if they had known one of us had voted for Norman Thomas. But I had voted for Truman. I finally decided Truman was the better choice. So I knew who had voted for Norman Thomas. I knew it was Carroll who had voted for Norman Thomas.
And you go back to Charleston and open a law office.
Bumpers: In the back of a hardware store. My father and his partner had this hardware store and we had sold my father’s share to his partner when dad died. When I got out of law school, he had fallen on hard times. He was having a very tough time. He wanted to sell the store and I wound up buying it because I knew it would be long time before I could make a living practicing law in a town of a thousand people. It turned out that when the smoke cleared I was ten thousand dollars in bankruptcy. Bankruptcy the way I grew up was unthinkable. Nobody took bankruptcy. You were ruined for life.
You didn’t make a good deal when you bought it back.
Bumpers: It was the worst deal of my life. Here I had come home to teach people how to not get hornswoggled and I was the first one to get hornswoggled. It was the worst deal I ever made in my life, but it was probably the most profitable deal I ever made in my life. It really taught me more than I would have ever learned if it hadn’t happened. It paid rich, rich dividends later on because I was so much wiser than I would have been. It was almost ten years before I didn’t owe people more than I owned. So you opened a law practice in the back of the store. Bumpers: In the back of the store. There was a little platform that was about twelve by fifteen. It was about that much higher than the rest of the floor. That’s where the bookkeeper stayed and that’s where the safe and the books were and that sort of thing. I converted that into a law office. I only had about five books that I had brought home from law school. But I had to buy what we call the Arkansas Reports and that’s all I had to start with. But I practiced law from that little cubicle in the back of that hardware store for two years. I believe my gross income the first year was like $64.
Gross income from your…
Bumpers: Gross income from my law practice. $64.
Do you remember your first case?
Bumpers: Well, I remember the first fee. This old geezer came in and he was selling a farm or something, a house, and he wanted me to draw a deed. I said fine. I’m now in business, and I’m getting ready to make my first fee. I did the deed for him, no title examination or nothing, just a warranty deed. He came back the next day and I handed it to him and he said, “How much do I owe you?” “Five dollars.” And he just went ballistic. “Five dollars? It ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of writin’.” I thought we were going to have a fistfight over that. But I finally made him pay me the five bucks.
Let’s talk about the school board. The Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, requiring desegregation of schools in the South, came along in 1954. Bumpers: May of ’54. You were not officially the attorney for the school board, but you were advising the school board.
Bumpers: That’s exactly right. When that decision came down, there was a decision by Charleston to desegregate.
I think you had advised them to do that.
Bumpers: Well, the board came to see me about it. You know, it really was an awesome decision. There I am just getting that little old office in the back of the bank, just building my practice and beginning to be busy practicing law, but I was the only lawyer in town so they didn’t have anyone else to talk to. I told the superintendent, Woody Haynes, who by the way ought to be in the history books in this state. . . Woody came to see me and he wanted to integrate. He thought the board wanted to integrate. I said, “Woody, you can do it now or you can do it later, but you’re going to have to do it. And I think it’s infinitely preferable and to our advantage to do it now.” It never occurred to me that the South wasn’t going to at least make an effort to integrate those schools.
I’m skipping a lot of the story, Ernie, but it was about July before school was to start in August or September. The school board voted to integrate the elementary and high school that fall. You had elementary and high school students; the black high school students were bused to and from Fort Smith, were they not? Bumpers: That’s true. We had an all-black school two miles east of town. Now, that was just through the eighth grade. We had a one-room schoolhouse out there and one teacher who taught black students through the eighth grade. Our high school students, ninth through twelfth, had always been bused right through Charleston to Fort Smith, to Lincoln High School, which was an all-black high school. So we were going to stop busing students, which cost us quite a bit of money. We had to have a bus driver and run that bus every day to carry just very few students, maybe half a dozen, to Fort Smith. I told them, “You can save the cost of that teacher.” I forget what they were paying her. Probably two thousand dollars a year, maybe a little more. I said, “You can save her salary. You can save the expense of that bus and the expense of the bus driver. That’s a lot of money for this school.” I was putting it in economic terms, not social terms. I thought, you know, socially we ought to do it, to integrate, but I was putting it to them so they could put it to the people by saying we’re spending three thousand to four thousand dollars a year to maintain that school and bus these kids to Fort Smith.
So Woody made the presentation to the Commercial Club, later the Chamber of Commerce, which met every two weeks for lunch. We want to integrate. He went through the whole schmeer. The night that the school board voted to do that, Archie Schaffer, my brother-in-law, who was on the school board, resigned. The minutes say that Archie Schaffer announced that he was resigning and was going to go to Korea in a federal job for a year. The board then unanimously elected me to fill in for him in his absence. So I had been the board’s attorney and recommending that they take this action and integrate that fall, and now I’m on the board. I was on the board through the whole schmeer after that.
Charleston, this little town in western Arkansas, becomes the first school district in the old Confederacy, the eleven states of the old Confederacy, to desegregate after the Supreme Court decision.
Bumpers: Ernie, we had no idea we were making history. When the smoke cleared, Fayetteville had integrated its high school that fall. Fayetteville integrated its high school two weeks after we had fully integrated the elementary and high schools. So we became the first of the eleven Confederate states. We were the first and one of only two, the other being Fayetteville, to integrate in 1954 after the Brown decision was entered. If you recall, the Brown decision said this order will be implemented with all deliberate speed. That’s the phrase that the Supreme Court used. All deliberate speed. Yet all across the South, people were terribly lackadaisical about it. First, they were terribly upset, but nobody made a move to comply with an order that the court said should be complied with all deliberate speed. We did. And it is a historical thing. As you know, Charleston was selected by the national government, through my efforts admittedly. . .
One of your last pieces of legislation in the Senate.
Bumpers: That’s right. Charleston is now a national commemorative site, because it was the only school to fully integrate in the entire South in 1954.
Things went smoothly, I guess.
Bumpers: Just perfectly. Couldn’t have been better. When bus No. 2 rolled up and the black children got off, Betty was teaching. Betty was teaching fourth grade at the time. There has been some dispute about how many black children there were. I don’t know. There were 13 or 21, I’ve heard so many different versions. Nobody seems to know. But things went well. We had one or two football players. I remember Joe Ferguson and the band.
The first problem we ran into was that other teams wouldn’t play us because we had a couple of black football players. We knuckled under to that. I’ve always been embarrassed about that. We should have told them we won’t play you. If you don’t want to play us because we have blacks on our team we won’t play you at all—but we didn’t. We left the black kids at home or maybe took them but didn’t let them suit out. The same thing was true in the band contest. IWe had to leave Joe Ferguson, our trombone player, at home because the bi-state band festival said we couldn’t enter if we were going to bring a black student. So, it presented problems like that because we were alone. Nobody else had integrated. Dardanelle came to see us to ask us how we were going to do it. Some people from Hoxie came to see us to ask how we were going to do it. There were two or three other schools in the state —I think Sheridan was one of them — that voted to integrate, but once it was made public the pressure was so intense that the school board had to rescind the order. I believe there were three schools in Arkansas. Hoxie was one [Hoxie went ahead and integrated], Sheridan was one and I forget where the third one was. They voted to integrate but when the public found out about it they put so much pressure on the board that they had to rescind the order.
Three years later, Little Rock desegregated. 1957. Orval Faubus is the governor and makes the decision to call out the National Guard to prevent integration of Central High School. I think it was Labor Day, 1957.
What effect did that have on Charleston?
Bumpers: Terrible. You know, nobody in Charleston was paying much attention to what was going on in Little Rock. But I was. I sensed that as this thing began to unfold in Little Rock, tempers began to flare and the volatility of the situation was evident. I knew that once Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to block those nine students’ entry into Central High School, and those mobs gathered in Little Rock, this state. . . You know, Orval Faubus had probably an 80, 85% approval to do what he did. In my hometown of Charleston, such talk as there was probably not like it was in a lot of places, but even there they sort of championed what Faubus was doing. I sensed that it was setting up a terribly traumatic event for us, because there had been some underlying resentment among some people about what we did. This was going to be their opportunity to undo what we did if Faubus was successful in pulling off the caper in Little Rock. He gauged that. [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower frankly did not want to get involved in that. He didn’t understand it. He was not racially attuned. Herbert Brownell, his attorney general, literally had to force Eisenhower to take the action he took, in nationalizing the National Guard and taking it out from under Faunus’s control.
I can tell you I was one who saw nothing but problems for Charleston. And the entire state. I didn’t know where this was going to end. It was getting so volatile and so angry; I could see riots breaking out all over this state. I was one of the people who were frightened. After Eisenhower decided to take Brownell’s advice, you remember, Faubus made a passive effort. He went up to Newport, Rhode Island, to meet with the president. There was nothing to talk about. He just did that to show that he was trying to resolve the problem, which was not solvable under his terms. So he came back home from Rhode Island with nothing. That’s when Eisenhower nationalized the National Guard and then sent the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock.
I’ll tell you an interesting story. I was highly in favor of what Eisenhower did. I wanted that 101st Airborne in this state. I wanted to prevent the terrible violence, which was about to break out, I wanted to tranquilize the situation. I was trying a lawsuit on the third floor of the courthouse in Paris, Arkansas, Logan County. It was a hot day. The windows were open. It was a jury trial. I remember hearing what to people of Charleston was a familiar sound—of military vehicles going down Highway 22. Fort Chaffee was going to furnish the logistical support for the 101st Airborne. They were headed for Little Rock. I want you to know that was the sweetest sound I ever heard. I felt so rejuvenated to know that the situation was going to be tranquilized.
Well, there was an effort in Charleston to roll back desegregation.
Bumpers: Once that whole thing occurred, a few rednecks who had really strongly opposed what we did— hey never did take any action, but they just didn’t want what we did in Charleston—began to come out of the woodwork. Meanwhile, on the school board, one of the school board members moved that we re-segregate and start sending our black children back to Fort Smith. That was absolutely, utterly unthinkable. I told them the board shouldn’t even be entertaining a motion like this. It got so hot that two school board members resigned. I take that back. One board member resigned. Two wanted to desegregate…
Bumpers: I’m sorry. Re-segregate. I was sort of alone because these two hotheads wanted to re-segregate and I didn’t. The chairman of the board said if he had to he would vote with me just to settle it, so we could wait until the next election and get the fifth member to replace the one who had resigned. And that he, depending on the outcome of the election, would go either way. They were going to run two candidates. They were going to run someone against me, and I was going to get someone to run with me to fill that vacant spot. He said if you all win in this election I’ll vote with you, but if you don’t I’m going to vote with Dale.
So I got a young man there in Charleston named Ralph Wingfield. Ralph was an uneducated man but he had no particular racial qualms one way or the other. He agreed to run with me and we’d run as a team and everybody would understand that we were going to keep Charleston integrated. That’s what the election was going to be about. The other two found two candidates to oppose us, and so the election was held in March of 1958. Normally, Charleston would vote a maximum of 150 in the school election. Never much to vote on. I guess there were over 500 votes cast in this election.
You won, I think, 308 to 173.
Bumpers: Is that what it was? Well, then my opponent, I mean my running mate, won almost by the same majority. So that put the thing to rest and Mr. Pritchard, who was the chairman of the board, voted with us and that was the end of that story. Except for this. That fall of 1958, just before we started back to school, somebody, and I knew who the somebody was… The school superintendent and the school caretaker—the janitor we called him—came to my home about 8 o’clock Sunday night and told me that somebody had written in great big green block letters all the way across the high school, which faced Highway 22, the main highway through Charleston, “nigger stay home.” School was going to start the next day. This was on Sunday.
I said: “ Well, I tell you what we’ll do. We’ll go down to my hardware store and we’ll get a couple of gallons of turpentine and I’ll give you fellows a couple of those stiff bristle brooms and you, Buel,” who was the caretaker, “you find somebody to help you. Get these brooms and use this turpentine and get that paint off before morning when school starts.” And they did. I drove down to the school the next morning, because I knew who the culprits were just as well as I knew my name, and I wanted to see the look on their faces when they realized that artwork of theirs on the side of the school building was gone. Sure enough, they came and you could just see the look of disappointment all over their faces. Their big green sign was gone. Ernie, in that whole episode there was one other thing worth reporting. It’s a little bit self-serving and I’ve probably embellished it a little.
There were a lot of Fergusons in the black community. Joe Ferguson was one of the finest men. He worked at the brick plant. A lot of the blacks in Charleston worked at the brick plant. They were the lucky ones. They worked in Fort Smith carrying bricks to the kiln and so on. Joe was a good friend. He had small children and he came to my house one night and said, “There are some people riding in a truck by my house and they’re shouting and hollering and I don’t know if they have guns or not. They haven’t’ shot, but Merriam is just scared to death and the children are terrified.” We knew there was no point in calling the local law-enforcement officers; they wouldn’t have done anything about it. I said, “Well Joe, I’m going to get in my car and I’ll go out there and sit with you and Mary and we’ll just see what happens.” So we did. I had a 1954 Pontiac. I had bought it used. In a small town like that, everybody knows everybody else’s car. So we drove that two and a half miles out east to what they call the settlement. We drove out there and up in Joe’s yard. He and I sat in the swing on his front porch. We hadn’t been there fifteen minutes when, well, here they came. You could hear them up and down the road shouting and hollering the epithets and everything. As they got closer and saw my car, the din and the shouting began to die out. They went by, and it was dark. I couldn’t tell who they were. I thought I probably knew who they were—all the usual suspects. But the noise began to die out. I stayed there a couple more hours and they never came back. I said in my book that I felt like Atticus Finch—if Atticus Finch was terrified. I was really frightened.
I want to go back to one other point on integration. That’s the Methodist Church. You helped to integrate the Methodist Church there in Charleston shortly after the episode with the school. Tell me about that.
Bumpers: I forget how many years ago that was. It followed the school integration and it also followed the Little Rock integration crisis. It was one, two or three years after that. The pastor of the Methodist Church in Charleston at the time came to my office. I’m reluctant to say this, but he said, “I want you to give me a hundred dollars to help patch the roof, to put a new roof on that nigger church.” I said, “Well I’m not going to give you a hundred dollars.” He said, “You’re not?” and I said no. He said, “If you don’t give me a hundred dollars, nobody will and it’s going to cost $1,500 and I came to you first because I knew you’d give it to me.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to. We have no business sponsoring that little church. That’s Civil War stuff. We’ve sponsored that little old church forever. We need to invite those people to come to our church.” I said that and I thought he was going to faint. He said, “Oh, if we do that, Mrs. Frensmeir, Mrs. Floyd, Lord knows who all, will quit our church. They’ll get up and walk out.” He mentioned Mrs. Frensmeir and Mrs. Floyd. I said, “No they’re not going to get up and walk out. They’d be afraid they’d miss something.” We talked about it at length and he said, “Will you take it up at the next board meeting?” I said, “Yes I will.”
So the word got out in town that we were going to have a board meeting at the Methodist Church and the main topic, the main purpose of the session was going to be to vote on whether to invite the black people of Charleston to come to the First Methodist Church. So I got up and made my motion and my presentation, and within 30 minutes we had voted twenty to two to integrate the Methodist Church the following Sunday. That’s the biggest crowd since my father’s funeral that I had ever seen in that church. You couldn’t shoehorn another person in. They were all there to watch this. So everybody was in their seats. We had reserved seats for the blacks up in the front. They walked in and you could have heard a pin drop. Now this was not all of them, because the Catholic Church had already integrated. The Catholic Church had taken in two or three families, including the Fergusons, who I just mentioned. Not all of them, but some of them. But these people came in and took their seats. And from then on everything was just as normal as it could be. I was the choir director in the church and I got a couple of first-class sopranos out of the deal. Ultimately, the black community in Charleston disappeared. There are maybe two families left there now. But everybody felt so proud. They were so proud of themselves that we had integrated that church, which is the exemplification of Christianity. Everybody was tickled to death about it.
Your father’s ambition was for you to practice law and get into politics. In 1962, you decided to do that. You would run for state representative in Franklin County against a guy named Mike Womack. Michael Womack. Why in the world did you enter that race?
Bumpers: I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times. Ernie, to set the stage quickly, Franklin County had two county seats, still has two county seats. But the principal county seat, the leading county seat, is in Ozark. Charleston and Ozark both have court sessions, both have courthouses and both have court sessions. But the Quorum Court meets in Ozark and there are only five precincts on the south side of the river. We only had about thirty percent of the vote in the county; the rest of them were north of the river. By 1962 I had gotten on my feet financially and I thought I could take the timeto run. I thought you had to start at the bottom of the ladder. I would start in the Arkansas legislature, in the House, then maybe run for Congress and then for senator. I had no interest whatever in being governor of Arkansas. Never did have. So I thought, “Well I believe I can pull this off.”
Mike Womack was a young fellow who was the county clerk or the circuit clerk, I forget which. He announced and I thought I could beat him. I didn’t realize that he was there for four years greeting everybody who walked into that courthouse. As I say, they were twice as big as the Charleston district. The sheriff, who ran the county, was going to be for Mike Womack. Such a machine as we had was going to be for Mike Womack. He had to be a little bit cautious because he knew everybody on our side of the river was going to be for me and he didn’t want to alienate those votes. But to shorten the story, I knew within two days of filing for the campaign that that was a lost cause. I wasn’t going to have a prayer. But I went through the motions. I would leave my office every afternoon at one o’clock and go over in the mountains to campaign. Spend thirty minutes with some guy who would finally in the end tell you he didn’t have a poll tax and couldn’t vote. Or tell you he was committed to old Mike. Mike was running as an orphan. He was twenty-seven years old and his mother and dad were dead, and under that theory I was an orphan, too. But Mike was well liked, popular and a nice guy. So it was like 42 to 58 percent, something like that. So while I was disappointed, I had conditioned myself to what was obviously an inevitable loss. I really felt I had done what my father wanted me to do and I didn’t ever want to go through that again. I didn’t think I would ever run again. I went back to that law office the next day and started to make money. That was my goal at that point, to make money. I did a pretty good job of it.