The rivers of history tend to flow parallel and from time to time they intersect with calamitous effect, as the government this fall taught us in Arkansas once again.
The course of events in Arkansas’s long and simultaneous struggles to achieve racial, education and economic parity intersected again — as they have on momentous occasions in the past — when the governor, after four years of failure, capitulated in October and had his education agency promise to return the capital city’s public education system to a board elected by the citizens, but only upon the condition that teachers and other school workers will be rendered powerless to ever again have any say about their wages and working conditions.
Sixty years ago this fall, Little Rock’s citizenry seized control of their schools from another governor who had closed the city’s public high schools so that white children would not have to sit in classes with a few black boys and girls. The motives all around are different now only in nomenclature.
An amazing confluence of memories, from the Elaine race massacre exactly 100 years ago to the tumultuous events preceding and following the great integration crisis in the Little Rock schools in 1957, should have reminded us of what was at stake in the school-takeover movement and the inevitable flop that it would produce. (Four years of state control by Governor Hutchinson’s education czar actually raised the number of “F” schools from six to eight.)
We will get back to those now ancient events in a moment.
Abolishing “the teachers union” was the clear but unstated purpose of the state takeover of the city’s schools in 2015, after Hutchinson’s election, but two superintendents handpicked by the Hutchinson administration to get rid of the bargaining contract and separate more youngsters into charter schools found the union to be an asset more than a hindrance. The administration fired its first superintendent, Baker Kurrus, after he defied directives about the union and more charter schools, but it hasn’t yet fired the second, Michael Poore. The governor’s people took care of the union for him, so he may be allowed to stay.
Little Rock’s is the only one of the state’s 269 school districts that has a bargaining agreement with a union, although the Walton family powers that directed the state takeover of the capital’s schools and dozens of ringing editorials in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette blamed sorry teachers for all the Arkansas schools that do poorly on a universally repudiated (except in Arkansas) test. Cowed school administrators and school boards, see, are supposed to be so terrified of the local classroom teachers association that they won’t fire or even reprimand a teacher whose pupils — always poor and usually black — are failing the silly test.
It is a superstition based entirely on ignorance. Teachers unions in Arkansas never had any power over the hiring, firing or disciplining of teachers. School administrators, often teachers who hated the drudgery or low pay of classroom teaching, do what they want to do in regular public schools just like they do in charter and private schools. There is virtually no record of teacher representatives in any of the seven Arkansas school districts that ever had bargaining agreements intervening to stop administrative actions.
The editorial writers and Walton acolytes, who mourn how the union bosses are keeping these schools from educating the poor and black kids from scoring passing grades by protecting lazy and incompetent teachers, might contemplate another statistic that compares all Arkansas schools on a universally accepted test: the PSAT, which measures knowledge and skills of middle and senior high school students. Fifteen students from the unionized Central High School scored high enough in 2019 to be National Merit scholars while all the charter schools, the two traditional Catholic schools, all the private and Christian schools that sprang up when the public schools had to integrate, and all the public schools in the county that are unfettered by union contracts produced a grand total of 13.
That is 15 scholars in one unionized school to 13 in all the rest. How did the union bosses let their school outperform all the educators in the county combined?
What I set out to do is not recapitulate these familiar arguments but to put it all into historical perspective. So often before, we have been at this juncture — the collision of race, poverty and labor-management stresses — although the governor, his education team, the Walton powers, newspaper management and the chamber of commerce all would deny it, as they have in the past.
Last month, the white leadership in Phillips County erected a monument to the hundreds of African Americans who were slaughtered exactly 100 years earlier when destitute sharecroppers gathered at night at a black church to talk about a union to seek higher payments for the crops they produced. Two white men fired into the church to break up the union meeting and one was killed by return fire. Lawmen, joined by vigilantes from both sides of the Mississippi and eventually by the governor and the militia, slew men, women and children on the road and in the fields and canebrakes. No more than five white men were killed, two by friendly fire. Eventually, scores of black men were rounded up and prosecuted and jailed, 12 of them receiving the death penalty, an injustice that disgusted even the conservative U.S. Supreme Court of that day.
White leaders put out the preposterous story that the poor blacks were plotting the massacre of whites to take over all the farmland. Newspapers, including the big Little Rock dailies, the Gazette and Democrat, went along agreeably with the yarn for much of a century. Both papers decried the union movement that followed the Great War and a couple of decades later supported a constitutional amendment that restricted the growth and power of organized labor.
By coincidence, the fall issue of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly in October traced those tensions to tumultuous events that are nearer to the matters at hand: city and state politics and the Little Rock schools. They were the municipal and state elections in 1955 and 1956, which laid the groundwork for the historic clash over the reality of the Bill of Rights at Little Rock’s Central High School in the fall of 1957. (Quarterly associate editor Michael Pierce wrote about the events also in the March issue of the Arkansas Times.)
A couple of strikes — at the bus company and a mill — roiled the city. A strikebreaker shot and killed a striker, but the prosecuting attorney prosecuted union leaders, not the killer, because a state law said union leaders should be held responsible for any violence associated with union activity, regardless of the actual perpetrator. In the following city election, an alliance of African Americans, who had just begun to vote, and union members swept the mayoral election by a landslide, won by labor sympathizer Woodrow Mann, and elected a majority on the city council because all the councilmen were elected by wards. They gave the bus franchise to a cooperative owned by the union, which promptly removed all the signs requiring blacks to sit the back of the bus, making Little Rock the first city in the South to integrate its transportation system. They defied a state law requiring segregated transportation systems, relegating blacks to the back.
That had two immediate effects. It energized the nascent white-supremacy and anti-labor extremists led by Amis Guthridge and Wesley Pruden, who had joined the business leadership against Mann and the union-black coalition and who would strike a bargain in 1957 with the previously liberal Gov. Orval Faubus to support his re-election if he would halt the approaching integration of Central High.
It also energized the business leadership, including the owners of the Little Rock dailies. They proposed abandoning the traditional bifurcated system of government and substituting a city-manager system, where the legislative branch would hold executive power by appointing a professional manager who served at the board’s discretion. At-large elections restored power to the white business leadership, where it has rested ever since, except the power never extended to the schools.
You know the rest. The unfortunate pawns are the poor children of the city.