One day in September 1957, Bill Floyd traveled by bus to Little Rock for an afternoon doctor’s appointment, but arrived early enough in the morning to satisfy his curiosity and witness history. Disembarking, he asked a man on a downtown street corner for directions to Central High School, site of violent protests over the Little Rock School Board’s decision to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 order to desegregate public schools. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had called up the National Guard to block the Little Rock Nine and protect, in his words, “public safety.”
As it turned out, the man was headed Floyd’s way and offered a ride. Floyd accepted, but as he approached the man’s pickup truck he saw a fully stocked gun rack hanging over the back window — and paused.
Floyd was the student association president of Harding College (now Harding University), a segregated, Churches of Christ-affiliated liberal arts school 50 miles northeast in Searcy. A wiry, nondescript former track star with wavy brown hair, Floyd excelled academically but made his mark as a cutup with slapstick chapel skits and post-curfew pranks. Humor often endears, and to the surprise of the straight-arrow gunners, politicos, jocks and “preacher boys,” Floyd had emerged as a darkhorse winner in the previous spring’s student government elections.
“Where y’all from?” the driver asked.
“Searcy,” Floyd replied.
“What do you think of the governor’s action?”
Bill Floyd’s father was a Church of Christ preacher who had been fired from the pulpit numerous times for preaching against Jim Crow. With every new church, Floyd’s father could only hold his tongue for so long. Floyd aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps. He became a champion debater, and he was unafraid to speak his mind.
Floyd replied, “I think history will show Governor Faubus’ action to be ill-advised.”
What happened next happened fast. The driver reached across Floyd, flung open the passenger door, and with his elbow sent him flying toward the gutter. As Floyd lay dazed, the driver slammed on his brakes and threw the truck in reverse. Floyd jumped behind what he called, years later, a “trembling” telephone pole.
The driver shouted, “No goddamn nigger lover is ever riding in my truck!”
He hit the gas and sped away.
Floyd waited until the truck was gone and then joined a crowd walking toward Central High. From a distance, he spotted the school and the large crowd of protestors, soldiers, and police. He dared not get too close, however. He was afraid the truck driver might spot him and finish what he had started.
After Floyd hit the ground that day, he returned to Searcy and lit a pro-integration fire among fellow Harding students who had witnessed the early events of the civil rights era and searched their souls for their response.
At Harding College, Floyd faced a more formidable foe than Orval Faubus. At least the governor of Arkansas was constrained by his state constitution and had to answer to the people. Harding College President George Stuart Benson answered to no one except himself and, presumably, God.
By 1957, Benson had led Harding College away from its apolitical and pacifist roots and transformed it into a nationally renowned stronghold of conservative politics. Through pamphlets and films produced by his brainchild, the National Education Program (NEP), Benson preached the merits of his twin pillars of “Godliness and Patriotism.” His creed was the “Three Cs” — Constitution, capitalism and Christianity — along with a strong antipathy to Communism. This promotion of civil religion and Americanism represented a sharp break with founding influences James Harding and David Lipscomb, two turn-of-the-century Church of Christ preachers who had emphasized kingdom come over money and guns. But World War I had produced a fundamental shift, a fusion of faith and politics that would mark the small, mostly Southern denomination for decades to come. Pacifists, once honored with the best seats in the church house, became unpatriotic pariahs.
Benson had graduated from Harding in 1925 and traveled as a missionary to China where he experienced several close encounters with Communist brutality. When he returned to the U.S. in the 1930s, he was disillusioned by the New Deal, which he regarded as a dilution of the “up-by-your-own-bootstraps” work ethic of his own pioneer Oklahoma upbringing. Then-president J.N. Armstrong was embroiled in a theological controversy and struggling to pay the bills on nickel and dime donations from a handful of individuals and churches. Aware of his own fiscal shortcomings, Armstrong saw Benson as a man with strong convictions and persuasive powers who had “seen the world” and how it works. In 1936, he handpicked Benson as his successor.
Benson soon discovered that strong convictions and persuasive powers could be converted to cold, hard cash. He learned to court big business moguls and conservative powerbrokers who were delighted to support a college that served their interests and goals. His new benefactors provided a financial lifeline that lifted Harding from the brink of financial ruin. New buildings sprang up across campus. New faculty members were hired. Harding’s reputation as an up and coming liberal arts school that supported “American values” grew along with its physical plant.
This blend of Christianity and Americanism met with considerable criticism within Churches of Christ. Benson pressed forward nonetheless, often employing the prolific rhetoric of Dr. James Bales, a Bible professor with a PhD in philosophy from the University of California Berkeley. Gangly and disheveled, the stereotypical academic, Bales was widely regarded in Church of Christ circles as an intellectual and a brawling, but congenial, debater. Benson had found his most effective partner and mouthpiece. The two of them took on all comers, from Khrushchev to the Kennedys, and defended “The American Way” — and the status quo of racial segregation — to the hilt.
However, some members of the Harding community interpreted biblical passages like Acts 10:34 (“God is no respecter of persons”) literally. They resisted Benson’s defense of segregation. Professors James Atteberry and Bill Verkler reached out to and worked with members of a black Church of Christ in Searcy. They also encouraged students to discuss segregation and civil rights, albeit behind closed office doors and in dorm rooms, not in the classroom.
Students resisted, too. They started publishing pro-integration editorials in the student newspaper, the Bison, during the years leading up to the Little Rock crisis. In 1949, a year after the desegregation of the U.S. military, the editorial “Is It A Great Day For the Race?” took up the issue of “race distinctions,” calling for increased discussion of the issue in the “hope for greater understanding.” A year later, in November 1950, Betty Thornton Ulrey, the first woman editor of the Bison, wrote a commentary in which she defended the editor of the University of Mississippi student newspaper who had written in support of the admission of a black student to the law school. She denounced the campus-wide protest — and cross burning — that followed.
An editorial published in October 1955 praised the desegregation ruling of Brown v. Board of Education and denounced the sham trial of Emmett Till’s accused murderer. The editorial concluded, “We would be happy if the college would announce, ‘Harding College will not refuse entrance to any person because of his race, creed or color’ … Probably the administration would be glad to make an announcement to this effect if all students favored it, but some of the Harding students wouldn’t return to school if Negroes were admitted.”
The last statement formed the crux of Benson’s public arguments against integration. On Jan. 7, 1956, in a chapel speech titled “Harding College and the Colored Problem,” he put to rest any notion that Harding would soon integrate, chiding the students’ youthful idealism and calling on them to trust “the judgment of elderly people of experience” such as the Harding Board of Trustees.
According to his prepared remarks, Benson explained that integration “now” was not the “voice of wisdom,” and he argued that immediate implementation would cause Harding to “lose 50 or more whites” and “much standing in the community — community not yet ready.” The Supreme Court decision, Benson said, was “a great shock to much of the South” and “time is required to absorb it.”
Benson then issued a warning. “Any pressure — petition, etc., would be seized upon by the NAACP and used to create all possible embarrassment,” he said. He encouraged students to leave the matter to the Board: “Thank God you do not have to make the decision.”
In May 1957, a Bison editorial challenged students to back their rhetoric with consistent action, “to follow what you advocate when the time comes for you to eat, ride and directly associate with Negroes.” The writer concluded, “What are you going to do when directly faced with the problem?”
For Harding students, the answer would come soon.
News of Bill Floyd’s adventure in Little Rock spread quickly across campus. Rumors circulated that he had been in a riot and was now on Governor Faubus’ watch list. With the Central High crisis playing out before a worldwide audience, Harding students came to view Floyd as a point man for a movement of their own. Some students wanted to demand an immediate end to segregation on campus. However, Floyd knew such a direct and confrontational approach would fail.
“We had no power,” Floyd told this reporter last year. “We were living in a dictatorship that preached American values. I thought we should approach the situation with humility and tact and make a statement that would have a good chance of receiving broad support.”
Floyd met with other members of the student association. They wanted to express their willingness to integrate, but finding the right words was difficult. They needed help.
Floyd found his wordsmith in English professor Robert Meyers. Dark-haired and handsome, Meyers had once modeled in his Army uniform for a Kodak ad in the Saturday Evening Post. Raised in a fundamentalist Churches of Christ home, he first attended one of the denomination’s more doctrinaire colleges, Freed-Hardeman. Meyers had dreamed of becoming a renowned and “doctrinally correct” preacher like his mentor, Freed-Hardeman’s president N.B. Hardeman.
But World War II intervened. Time spent overseas as an Army reporter opened his eyes to the world. He had witnessed profound sacrifices and acts of love from soldiers of many different faiths — and no faith at all. His rigid belief system had melted in the crucible of war.
Returning home, he sought solace and healing in literature at Abilene Christian College. Later, he joined the Harding faculty to fulfill a life-long dream of teaching at a Christian college.
Students loved him and hung on his every word. Some administrators and Bible professors were less enthusiastic. His fascination with those “outside the fold,” such as the Anglican writer C.S. Lewis, was cause enough in their minds to label him a potentially subversive “modern” who might teach “unsound ideas.”
“I am more than a little embarrassed about how slight my role was in the integration ruckus,” Meyers said. “But I knew that Bill’s request represented a Christian position, and I was glad to advise about its composition and to sign it. I had no hesitation. I believed it was the right thing to do.”
Meanwhile, word of the student movement had spread to Benson and other administrators. Floyd recalls that Benson did not confront him directly, but sent proxies to deliver his message.
“I was warned by several administrators and professors that my future employment prospects would be harmed if we proceeded. I was told that the student association should serve as a means of indoctrinating the student body on the view of the administration rather than protest and that if I wanted to agitate for integration, I should go elsewhere,” Floyd said.
Nevertheless, the student association met to hammer out the final draft of their “Statement of Attitude” and voted to distribute it. It expressed the student body’s willingness to integrate immediately and fully — including the dormitories. If signed by a majority of the student body, they reasoned, the statement would deal Benson’s main public argument against integration — that the Harding community was not ready and would not stand for it — a severe blow.
The “Statement of Attitude” began:
“To the Administration and Board of Trustees of Harding College:
“A number of members of the Harding College community are deeply concerned about the problem of racial discrimination. Believing that it is wrong for Christians to make among people distinctions which God has not made, they sincerely desire that Harding College make clear to the world that she believes in the principles of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. To that end, the undersigned individuals wish to state that they are ready to accept as members of the Harding community all academically and morally qualified applicants, without regard to arbitrary distinctions such as color or social level; that they will treat such individuals with the consideration and dignity appropriate to human beings created in the image of God; and that they will at all times face quietly, calmly, patiently, and sympathetically any social pressures intensified by this action.”
The students were careful to add that the “Statement of Attitude” was not “an attempt to precipitate action,” but instead “an expression of internal readiness.” They walked a fine line, daring to challenge Benson and the Board of Trustees while continuing to show respect to their elders.
Student leaders planned to circulate the statement in dorms and on sidewalks. There would be no arm-twisting. Each student, faculty, or staff member would be asked to read the statement and sign only if they agreed. If someone refused, student activists were to refrain from comment or argument, thank the person for his or her time, and move on. It would be a campaign of Christian conscience, not coercion.
Floyd oversaw the circulation of the statement to faculty. Their salaries were dependent on Benson’s appeals to conservative donors, who often viewed integration as a communist plot, and their endorsements would be significant. A few professors refused, but most signed — some hesitantly, others quickly, eager at long last to exercise the kind of academic freedom that their peers at secular schools took for granted.
Floyd feared for Meyers in particular and went to great lengths to conceal his involvement. “I figured that Dr. Benson suspected that Dr. Meyers had helped us,” Floyd said. “It was an eloquent statement, and there were only a few people on campus who could write that well, plus his office was next to mine. I had him sign further down the list, far below my name, to make it seem less like collaboration.”
On Nov. 14, 1957, the Bison published an above-the-fold story with a bold headline that read: “Results of Recent Poll On Racial Integration Show Student Attitudes.” A total of 946 out of 1276 students, faculty and staff — nearly 75 percent of the campus — had signed the “Statement of Attitude,” including 49 faculty members, 42 staff members, and 1 administrator, Dean of Students James Atkinson.
The minutes of a Board of Trustees meeting show that later that same month, Benson dutifully delivered — per official protocol — the “Statement of Attitude” to the board for its “consideration.”
Harding College’s policy of segregation did not change after the Board of Trustees received the “Statement of Attitude.” Nor did Benson respond immediately to the students’ demonstration. Instead, he sent others, including Bales, around campus to make the argument for continued segregation.
But in January 1958, Benson gave a chapel speech titled “Harding College and the Negro Question.” According to his prepared notes, Benson scolded Bill Floyd and the student association for their circulation of the “Statement of Attitude.” He complained that proper procedure had not been followed (“A petition normally is a last resort, not a first step!”) and that he had considered offering an open chapel forum to Bill Floyd in which both sides could discuss the issue.
According to Floyd, Benson never extended such an offer. He said, “Others tried to warn us off, but he never offered a forum. A petition was much easier to control. Had he opened up the subject to debate, we would have done so gladly. But he didn’t for fear of the press and the NAACP showing up on campus for such an event. He would have never risked that.”
Benson said that few blacks desired to attend Harding and that those who had applied had received financial assistance from his own pocket to attend all-black schools in Little Rock and Texas. He contended that “many students and faculty have come to me and apologized for signing after learning the facts.”
Floyd disputed this claim. “I’m not aware of a single person who ‘took back’ their signature. We knew exactly what we were doing and what was at stake and were willing to risk reprisals to do the right thing.”
Ken Perrin, a first-year faculty member in the fall of 1957, confirmed Floyd’s recollection when a reporter read him portions of Benson’s speech. “I suppose some might have had ‘signer’s regret’ but I personally didn’t know of any. The statement enjoyed broad support, and everyone who I was around who signed was glad they had.”
Benson asserted that blacks in America “have more cars than people in Russia” and “more money than people in Canada.” “Equal educational opportunities” existed for all and did not require racial mixing, according to Benson. “The Little Rock Nine,” he said, “left a far better building and their own teachers to go to Central.”
Citing Washington, D.C., as an example, Benson warned that integration would bring “increased destruction to property, increased gonorrhea and syphilis, and increased pregnancies.” He also railed against “mixed marriages” which would lead to “more broken homes” and an “increase in crime.”
Benson concluded the speech with a line that Harding’s faculty and students had heard him say before but never with so much emphasis: “The blackbirds and bluebirds, the blue jays and mockingbirds, they don’t mix and mingle together, young people!”
Robert Meyers recalled staring toward the Administration Auditorium from a classroom later that day, stewing over Benson’s racist diatribe. Turning toward his lectern, Meyers shook his head and asked no one in particular, “Did he really say that?”
Later that night, three freshman students, Gary Ackers, Bob Silvey and Bill Floyd’s younger brother Keith, vented their frustration in clandestine protest. They snuck out after curfew and made their way toward the Lily Pool, a popular campus gathering place. Two of them waded into the middle of the pool and planted a sign that read, “White Only.”
“Actually, I just ‘held their coats,’ so to speak,” Keith Floyd recalled in an e-mail. “I have wished ever since that I had waded into the pond.”
For the next several weeks, numerous students wrote anonymous letters and oblique critiques of and poems about Benson’s remarks in the Bison.
However, their movement lost steam. There was no mention of the “Statement of Attitude” in the student yearbook or in the typical “year in review” pieces that appeared in the Bison in the late spring. Meanwhile, the Board of Trustees’ “consideration” of the “Statement of Attitude” lasted the remainder of the academic year — and for several years after.
Bill Floyd graduated and moved on. Within three years, Robert Meyers and James Atkinson were gone, too, driven out for their failure to toe the Harding party line.
As the civil rights movement entered its most productive and visible years, Benson and the Board of Trustees remained mostly silent. Yet even Benson could see the future. In a chapel speech in the fall of 1958, he decried the “ton of heartaches” that “integration and amalgamation” would bring but predicted that both “will ultimately take place, if the world continues a few hundred years.”
By the fall of 1963, however, the forthcoming Civil Rights Act changed the financial calculus of segregation. When the bill passed, Harding would be required to desegregate to continue receiving federal funds. In a surprise chapel announcement that fall, Benson said that, effective immediately, three black male students would be admitted.
Benson’s announcement was met with a standing ovation. An editorial cartoon from the Sept. 26, 1963, Bison shows a beleaguered figure, presumably Benson, standing behind the podium, hands raised as if attempting to stem the tide of history. The caption read: “Please, there’s no need of a standing ovation for the announcements!”
That same week, Bill Floyd’s father lost another Churches of Christ pulpit job in Sylacauga, Ala. He had denounced the recent bombings at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and was fired on the spot.
By the time the first black student association president, Lot Therrio, was elected in 1975, the early civil rights activism of Bill Floyd and the signers of the “Statement of Attitude” had been long forgotten.
Read Michael D. Brown’s author’s note about this article here.
A previous version of this story said that Harding was the first private college in Arkansas to desegregate. In fact, the University of the Ozarks, also a private institution, integrated earlier, in 1957.