SCENE OF STRIKE: The Southern Cotton Oil Co. mill, circa 1920, 25 years before the FTA action. Courtesy Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System

Anti-unionism and white supremacy have been joined at the hip in Arkansas since World War II. As seen over the last five years, the forces that abolished the Little Rock School Board as soon as it had a black majority and have pursued policies that would resegregate the city’s public schools are the same ones who decertified the Little Rock Education Association. The current trouble in the city is deeply rooted in its past. Here’s the history of Arkansas’s racist underpinnings of its anti-union positions:

Around 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 26, 1945, Otha Williams, an African-American strikebreaker, left the Southern Cotton Oil Co. mill on East Ninth Street in Little Rock through a side entrance, away from the Food, Tobacco and Allied Agricultural Workers Union (FTA) Local 98’s picket line. As he and four other strikebreakers crossed the street, they encountered two strikers, Walter Campbell and Robert Brooks, both African-American. Although accounts differ as to what happened next, there was agreement on these essential details: Strikebreaker Williams pulled a knife, stabbed striker Campbell multiple times and left him to die on the street. A Pulaski County grand jury refused to indict Williams for killing Campbell, concluding that he had acted in self-defense, but it did charge six black FTA Local 98 members with violating an anti-labor violence law enacted by the Arkansas General Assembly in 1943 that made picketers criminally liable for any strike-related violence.

Charges against four of these men were later dropped, but Pulaski Country Prosecutor Sam Robinson sought to make an example of the local’s leaders at the mill, Louis Jones and Roy Cole. The pair had not participated in the violence, but, nonetheless, Robinson put them on trial, secured convictions and convinced the judge to sentence each man to hard labor in the state penitentiary. The court proceedings so outraged civil rights activists Daisy and L.C. Bates that they published a blistering condemnation in their newspaper, the Arkansas State Press. The judge responded by jailing them for impugning the integrity of his court.

The killing of Walter Campbell, the convictions of Louis Jones and Roy Cole and the jailing of the Bateses were all part of a broader anti-union movement that was designed to keep black and white workers apart and competing against each other. The planters, bankers and utility magnates who had long controlled Arkansas politics were alarmed by changes wrought by the New Deal and World War II. Blacks and whites were joining labor unions in record numbers; pressure to allow blacks, especially those serving in the military, to vote was building; and organized labor had emerged as a powerful force in Washington and within the national Democratic Party. All of these changes threatened the Jim Crow labor relations that kept wages low for both whites and blacks and allowed the Arkansas business community to prosper. Thus, anti-unionism and the fight to maintain white supremacy went hand-in-hand in post-World War II Arkansas.

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The campaign to roll back trade unionism in modern Arkansas began during the war. In early 1943, the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation and allies in the business community brought Vance Muse and his Christian American Association to the state. Muse chose the name Christian American for his organization to contrast it to what he saw as the nation’s gravest peril: Jewish Marxism. In his mind, Judaism, Marxism, the New Deal, trade unionism and the struggle for civil rights were all parts of the same whole. Muse, a profane Texan, had long made a lucrative living by attacking these things. The DuPont family and General Motors’ Alfred Sloan had paid him to produce what Time magazine called “cheap pamphlets containing blurred photographs of the Roosevelts [Franklin and Eleanor] consorting with Negroes.” Muse later defended the distribution of the most provocative photograph: “I am a Southerner and for white supremacy. … It was a picture of Mrs. Roosevelt going to some nigger meeting with two escorts, niggers, on each arm.” Muse even considered President Roosevelt to be a Communist infiltrator: “That crazy man in the White House will Sovietize America with the federal hand-outs of the Bum Deal — sorry, New Deal. Or is it the Jew Deal?”

Muse and his Christian American Association went to work convincing the Arkansas General Assembly to pass an anti-labor-violence bill similar to ones they had helped enact in Texas and Mississippi. The measure, which made picketers — but not strikebreakers or management — criminally liable for any violence that occurred during a strike, was touted as necessary for labor peace while the nation was at war. During legislative debates, though, it became apparent that the bill’s primary purpose was to halt the biracial unionism associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and its affiliate the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU), which sharecroppers established in Poinsett County in 1934. White County’s senator complained about the CIO’s “communist tendencies” and insisted that it had long “dominated labor organizations and disputes in the state.” St. Francis County’s senator accused the STFU of causing “trouble” in the cotton fields, explaining “labor leaders … have told a large plantation owner that he would have to give some consideration to contracts with his tenants.” Chicot County’s senator justified his support by declaring simply, “I’m opposed to the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.” Muse and his legislative allies usually avoided explicitly racist rhetoric, but the measure’s racial underpinnings often bubbled to the surface. One Delta legislator urged passage to prevent a race war, insisting that the STFU sought to “organize the rural Negroes in Chicot County and wipe the white people out in one night.” Christian American literature promised the measure would allow “peace officers to quell disturbances and keep the color line drawn in our social affairs” and protect otherwise contented African Americans “from communistic propaganda and influences.”

Labor leaders countered that passage of the measure would only slow war production and encourage labor violence. Arkansas State Federation of Labor’s lobbyist pointed out that not one day of work had been lost due to a strike by one of its unions in the state. The president of the Little Rock Labor Council explained that the sheer size of plantations made picketing impossible. Instead, he said the measure was intended to give anti-union thugs and scabs license to attack strikers with impunity. This, he concluded, would only increase the amount of time lost to labor disputes.

Labor supporters thought they had the measure defeated, but Muse orchestrated one last push. He brought in Texas Sen. Wilbert “Pappy” O’Daniel, a prominent race baiter who delivered a fiery speech in the Capitol and purchased full-page ads in each of the state’s daily newspapers. Most importantly, the measure’s proponents bought votes. Labor’s chief lobbyist explained that Farm Bureau officials only won the vote after they arrived at the Capitol with a suitcase full of cash.

Planters, industrialists and their allies marked the passage of the anti-labor-violence law with a huge celebration at the Hotel Marion, where they agreed to fund another Muse effort: the campaign to pass the nation’s first “right to work” law. A “right to work” law does not grant an individual the right to work, as the name would suggest, but rather prohibits employers and employee-chosen unions from agreeing to contracts that require employees to join the union as a condition of employment. The purpose is to make union organizing more difficult. The idea for “right to work” laws came from a Dallas Morning News editorial writer, who gave his blessing to Muse’s efforts to enact such laws. Muse, though, made little headway until he reached Arkansas, where the business community agreed to fund a 1944 campaign to add a “right to work” amendment to the state’s constitution.

Muse and his Christian American Association told Arkansans that “right to work” was essential for maintaining the color line in labor relations. One piece of literature warned that if the amendment failed, “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes … whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Similarly, the Arkansas Farm Bureau justified its support of “right to work” by citing organized labor’s threat to Jim Crow. It said passage of the amendment would help maintain the status quo and accused the CIO of disrupting it by “trying to pit tenant against landlord and black against white.”

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Muse’s “right to work” campaign was helped by the fact that most Arkansas votes were “controlled” by county or local bosses who did the bidding of planters and business concerns. Bosses bought votes, stuffed ballot boxes, manipulated poll tax receipts and simply fabricated returns if need be. In Eastern Arkansas, planters purchased poll tax receipts in the names of their sharecroppers and then voted for them on Election Day. In 1943, former Gov. Carl Bailey identified only three Arkansas counties in which elections were determined by the “uncontrolled impulses of the citizenship.” In the other 72, bosses held sway.

Courtesy Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System
RIGHT-TO-WORK SUPPORTERS: The Arkansas Free Enterprise Association was created by the State Chamber of Commerce and others to prosecute strikers. This page from an AFEA brochure shows some of its members.

The “right to work” amendment passed in an election marked by excessive irregularities, even by mid-century Arkansas standards. Eleven days after the election, only 68 counties had reported results. Several Delta counties held back their reports to ensure there would be enough votes to assure passage. Later, while discussing the passage of Arkansas’s “right to work” amendment, Muse unconvincingly denied that it was racist and anti-Semitic: “They call me anti-Jew and anti-nigger. Listen, we like the nigger — in his place. … Our amendment helps the nigger; it does not discriminate against him. Good niggers, not those Communist niggers. Jews? Why some of my best friends are Jews. Good Jews.”

After World War II, the planter and businessmen’s campaign against trade unions continued. They were eager to remove federal labor policies that had allowed the Arkansas labor movement to grow so rapidly during the war. The strike at the Southern Cotton Oil Co. mill is the most prominent example of this. The federal government had required the company to negotiate with the FTA during the war, brokering a contract that gave the union recognition and the workers legal standing. The company, part of a multinational corporation that produced Wesson and Snowdrift shortening, welcomed the end of the war as an opportunity to break the union. Its refusal to bargain in good faith prompted 117 of the company’s 120 workers to walk off the job in December 1945. Union and black activists insisted that Walter Campbell’s killing was intentional and part of the company’s effort to operate union-free. L.C. Bates claimed the incident was “engineered by those with much to gain.”

Planters and businessmen organized homegrown organizations to continue the efforts of Muse and the Christian American Association. In 1946, men connected to the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas, Arkansas Expenditure Council and Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation created the Arkansas Free Enterprise Association (AFEA). At its first meeting, the AFEA dedicated itself to prosecuting the Southern Cotton Oil mill strikers and defending the “right to work” and anti-labor-violence measures. An AFEA statement declared that the “infiltration of union labor leaders, union labor bosses, union labor policies and union labor practices” was threatening the state’s prosperity and stirring racial discord.

Many of those associated with the AFEA, specifically Little Rock seed merchants Guy Cameron, Carroll Thibault and Hal Cochran, also secretly organized the much less respectable Veterans’ Industrial Association (VIA). Led by Jimmy Karam and promoted by Harding University’s George Benson, the VIA recruited returning soldiers to serve on squads of strikebreakers, arming them with brass knuckles and axe handles. The VIA’s enthusiasm for violence — not just in Arkansas but throughout the South — alarmed even the nation’s most ardent critics of the labor movement. The conservative syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler considered the VIA to be a “potential fascist organization.”

The fight between organized labor and anti-union groups spilled into Pulaski County politics. The AFEA and VIA got behind Prosecuting Attorney Sam Robinson’s 1946 re-election campaign. Robinson made his prosecution of FTA Local 98 leaders Jones and Cole and his opposition to trade unions the cornerstones of his re-election. Not surprisingly, the black community (1946 was the first year since disfranchisement that Pulaski County African Americans could vote in the Democratic primary) and labor movement lined up behind Robinson’s opponent, Edwin Dunaway. The race, according to the Arkansas Democrat, quickly “developed into an open fight between the Arkansas Free Enterprise Association and the CIO.” Dunaway squeezed out a narrow victory, and the contest realigned Little Rock politics: the business community and white supremacists on one side, and blacks and trade unionists on the other.

The political realignment seen in Pulaski County in 1946 expanded statewide in 1948. That year witnessed two pivotal elections. The first was the summer’s governor’s race. A coalition that Daisy Bates described as “labor, Negroes and liberals in the cities” got behind the candidacy of Sid McMath, while planters, businessmen and opponents of the civil rights reforms recently proposed by President Harry Truman lined up behind Jack Holt. McMath’s victory set the stage for the presidential contest. McMath threw his coalition behind Harry Truman, working to defeat Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond. The Dixiecrats were Southern Democrats who broke away from the national party to protest Truman’s civil rights program, and Thurmond campaigned throughout the South as the champion of segregation and supremacy. Amis Guthridge and Gov. Ben Laney ran Thurmond’s Arkansas campaign out of the AFEA office. They told voters that organized labor had stirred up racial trouble in the state by manipulating ignorant African Americans and that only a vote for Thurmond and segregation would restore order. Though Truman received the state’s electoral votes and won re-election, the battles between the two factions continued to rage.

That was nowhere more apparent than on the streets outside of Central High in 1957. It is hardly surprising that two men who rose to prominence in Little Rock in the 1940s fighting organized labor — Amis Guthridge and Jimmy Karam — led the segregationist forces. Guthridge was the main spokesman for the city’s segregationist organizations — the Capital Citizens’ Council and the Mothers’ League of Central High — and Karam recruited former VIA goons to surround Central High to prevent the entry of the Little Rock Nine. Likewise, those who sided with labor in the 1940s — L.C. and Daisy Bates, Edwin Dunaway, Sid McMath — were the most outspoken advocates for the Little Rock Nine.