The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was the single most important organization in the single most important event in the 20th century in Little Rock and Arkansas: the 1957 desegregation of Central High School. At a local level, the NAACP, through Daisy and L.C. Bates, assisted by local attorneys Wiley Branton and Christopher C. Mercer among others, provided support for the Little Rock Nine and fought in the courts for school desegregation. At a national level, Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund Inc. and its team of attorneys successfully supported local court action and helped defeat a whole battery of state-sponsored harassing legislation and litigation aimed at putting the NAACP out of business in Arkansas.
Yet the NAACP’s heroic efforts in paving the way for school desegregation in Little Rock is just one part of its much longer history in the state. Just as the NAACP is America’s oldest civil rights organization in continuous existence, so too is the NAACP Arkansas’s oldest and longest-serving civil rights organization. Arkansas’s first NAACP branch was founded in Little Rock on July 4, 1918; this year marks the NAACP’s 100th year of operation in the state.
However, it was not until the early 1940s, thanks to the efforts of Pine Bluff lawyer William Harold Flowers, that the NAACP significantly expanded its activities. Born in Stamps (Lafayette County) on Oct. 16, 1911, Flowers was the son of an insurance salesman and a schoolteacher. His legal career was inspired by childhood trips to the courthouse in Little Rock with his father. At the age of 15, on one of those trips, he witnessed the burning of lynching victim John Carter on a funeral pyre at the intersection of West Ninth Street and Broadway, an event, he later recalled, that “truly converted [him] to be a lawyer.” Flowers worked his way through law school, taking part-time classes at the Robert H. Terrell School of Law in Washington, D.C. After graduation, he returned to Arkansas, hanging his shingle in Pine Bluff in 1938. In October that year, Flowers wrote to NAACP national executive secretary Walter White that Arkansas’s chapter badly needed organization and leadership. Letters of reply arrived from NAACP special counsel Charles Hamilton Houston and the then-NAACP assistant special counsel, Thurgood Marshall. Both offered sympathy but little concrete help.
Flowers decided to take matters into his own hands. On March 10, 1940, at a meeting in Stamps, Flowers launched a Committee on Negro Organizations to mobilize the state’s black population. Flowers was convinced that if blacks began to purchase poll-tax receipts and cast their vote at elections, it would prove a vital first step in raising black political consciousness to challenge the Arkansas Democratic Party’s all-white primary elections. He tirelessly stumped the state for his cause. “Drive to Increase Race Votes Is Successful” headlined the Arkansas State Press, Little Rock’s black newspaper, owned by L.C. and Daisy Bates. It anticipated a record turnout of black voters. Two years later, after more successes, it printed Flowers’ photograph with the caption “He Founded A Movement.” Significantly, a legal breakthrough for black Arkansans came later that year. In March 1942, a member of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers’ Association, Sue Morris, successfully launched a suit for the right of black teachers to receive the same salary as white teachers in the city’s school system.
The teachers’ salary suit had a long-term impact on the struggle for black freedom and equality in Arkansas. The local effort attracted the help of Thurgood Marshall, whose presence in Little Rock garnered newfound support for the NAACP. In response to this rising local interest, the NAACP national office began to take more interest in the state. In 1945, an NAACP Arkansas State Conference of branches was established, with Flowers appointed as its chief recruitment officer. The year before the Arkansas State Conference came into existence the Smith v. Allwright (1944) ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed all-white Democratic Party primaries. The work of Flowers and the CNO meant that when blacks could finally reap the benefits of the vote, they began to make an immediate impact. In 1940, the number of registered black voters in Arkansas stood at only 4,000. By 1947, that number had increased more than tenfold to 47,000. Through poll-tax drives, voter education rallies and the raising of political awareness and activity, Flowers and the CNO made sure that black political organization pre-dated national rulings.
In 1948, Flowers handled the admission of the first black student, Silas Hunt, to the University of Arkansas Law School. Flowers’ demands, coupled with national rulings gained by the NAACP, finally persuaded white authorities at the University of Arkansas to desegregate without going to court. When Hunt enrolled in February 1948, accompanied by Flowers, together with Flowers’ younger protégé, Wiley Branton, he became the first black student to attend classes with whites at a Southern university since Reconstruction. More black students soon followed his example.
Still, the NAACP national office remained cautious about developments in Arkansas. When the Arkansas State Conference was established, Flowers was given the post of chief organizer of branches, but the presidency went to Rev. Marcus Taylor, an older, more conservative and more pliable figure from Little Rock. Rivalry between the two men quickly developed. In 1948, Flowers and his supporters ousted Taylor as president. By then, even the national office was beginning to come around. “I will admit that I may have underrated Pine Bluff and its leadership,” wrote NAACP national membership secretary Lucille Black. When NAACP regional secretary Donald Jones attended the annual Arkansas State Conference meeting that elected Flowers as president in 1948, he reported that spirits were “high and militant,” and that, “Largely responsible for the fine NAACP consciousness in Pine Bluff and the growing consciousness in the state is Attorney Flowers whose … tremendous energy ha[s] made him the state’s acknowledged leader.”
Flowers’ election gave heart to other local activists. In Little Rock, Daisy Bates filed an application to form a countywide “Pulaski County Chapter of the NAACP.” By forming a countywide NAACP chapter, she hoped to usurp the power base of older leaders that dominated the Little Rock NAACP. In her application for a branch charter, Bates included 50 membership subscriptions and a filing fee, and nominated herself as president. The response Bates received from the NAACP national office revealed that there were limits to the autonomy it was prepared to grant local activists. The NAACP’s director of branches, Gloster B. Current, in a short reply to Bates, pointed out that there was already an NAACP branch in Little Rock and that if people were interested in helping the organization they should join it.
Amid the ongoing infighting, Flowers resigned from office in 1949. He was replaced by elder statesman Dr. J.A. White. When White fell ill and resigned in 1951, undertaker W.L. Jarrett, a veteran of CNO campaigns, acted as a temporary replacement. The question of the direction of Arkansas State Conference leadership was finally resolved when Daisy Bates was elected president in 1952. Reporting to the NAACP national office, NAACP southwest regional attorney Ulysses Simpson Tate questioned Bates’ ability to work with older, more established leaders in the state. He was also wary of her tendency “to go off the deep end at times.” But, he concluded, “[Although] I am not certain that she was the proper person to be elected … there was no one else to be elected who offered any promise of doing anything to further the work of the NAACP in Arkansas.”
Tate’s begrudging acceptance of Bates’ election singularly failed to anticipate that she would become the most recognized face of the NAACP in Arkansas history. It was Bates who went on to lead the organization through the tumultuous events of the 1957 Little Rock school crisis. By then, the groundwork laid by her friend and mentor William Harold Flowers was overshadowed and largely forgotten. But it was Flowers who paved the way for the NAACP’s growth and for Bates’ subsequent leadership during the school crisis. In myriad ways, Flowers planted the seeds for the NAACP’s and the civil rights movement’s emergence in Arkansas. His legacy continues today. The Arkansas Black Lawyers Association was renamed the W. Harold Flowers Law Society in 1981 in his honor. Moreover, Flowers’ daughter, Stephanie Flowers, serves in the Arkansas Senate, and his grandniece, Vivian Flowers, serves in the Arkansas House of Representatives. They both continue to carry the torch of Flowers’ earlier ambitions for black political empowerment and the expansion of civil rights in the state.
John A. Kirk is the Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.