Friday, January 08, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Bumpers’ legacy II

Former Governor and Senator Dale Bumpers, who passed away on New Year’s Day at the age of 90, was born Aug. 12, 1925, at Charleston, the county seat of southern Franklin County.

His father was William Rufus Bumpers, an Irishman, and his mother was the former Lattie Jones, who had Irish and Welsh ancestors. The elder Bumpers taught school and farmed 40 acres on an Ozark hillside in the Cecil community until their first son died from eating a bad watermelon. His mother declared that she was not going to have children on the lonely farm only to see them die for lack of a doctor, so they moved to Charleston, where there was sometimes a doctor. Dale Bumpers was the youngest of three children who survived to adulthood.

His father clerked in a grocery store and later became a partner in a hardware and furniture store and still later a funeral home. Funeral homes were usually associated with hardware stores, which built the caskets. His father, who was fascinated by politics and by Roosevelt, was a good speaker and was in demand for banquets and funerals. The elder Bumpers was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1932 at the depth of the Depression and wanted to run for Congress, but his wife made him quit because she feared they were going to starve.

Although his Ozark town was some distance removed from the biracial South where the great civil rights battles were joined, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision outlawing racially segregated schools in 1954 pulled Dale Bumpers into the eddies of the coming maelstrom and reaffirmed his father’s expectation that politics and public office were his destiny.

Weeks after the decision in 1954, the Charleston school superintendent came to him, the community’s only lawyer, and asked what the decision meant for his schools. Bumpers said integration was now the law of the land and the law had to be obeyed, and better sooner than later. Charleston had a tiny elementary school two miles east of town and one teacher for the handful of black children, and the half-dozen or so high school students were taken by bus to an African-American school in Fort Smith. Bumpers said integration could be achieved easily in the fall term and he suggested that it could be sold as a big tax savings. All the separate cost of the black grade school and busing the high school students to Fort Smith could be saved and spent upgrading the existing schools. The superintendent asked him to persuade the school board and the business community. The school board voted to integrate immediately.

Charleston was the only school district in the South that totally integrated in 1954. The night the board voted to integrate, Bumpers’ brother-in-law, Archie Schaffer II, announced he was resigning from the board to work for a year in Korea, and the board appointed Bumpers to take his place. The integration went smoothly—there was no statewide publicity about the integration—except for the refusal of a few schools to let Charleston’s black students play football on their fields and the band’s trombone player being banned from the bi-state band festival because he was black.

“We knuckled under to that,” Bumpers would recall 55 years later. “I’ve always been embarrassed about that. We should have told them we won’t play you, but we didn’t.”

But real trouble was only delayed.

When Gov. Orval E. Faubus sent the National Guard to Central High School to block the entrance of nine black children in 1957, it occurred to some in Charleston that their school didn’t have to integrate either. There was a move to return to segregated schools, but in a school board election Bumpers and an ally defeated two candidates who ran on the promise to send blacks back to their own schools. Bumpers would recall getting gallons of turpentine and stiff brooms from his hardware store the night before school opening and, with the janitor and a helper, scrubbing off graffiti that had been painted early in the evening in giant block letters across the front of the high school: “niggers stay home.”

“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,” he said. “Sure enough, they came and you could just see the look of disappointment all over their faces.”

When a truckload of hooligans terrorized a black family on a road outside town one night, Bumpers drove his ’54 Pontiac into the family’s yard and sat with the father on the porch far into the night. When the hooligans saw Bumpers’ car they stopped shouting and cursing, stopped at a distance and finally drove away.

As a senator, Bumpers had Charleston designated as a national commemorative site in recognition of its being the first school district in the South to totally integrate after the Brown decision.

Bumpers decided to launch his political career in 1962 and ran for the House of Representatives from Franklin County but realized almost immediately that it was hopeless. He ran against Mike Womack, the Franklin County circuit clerk, who lived in the far more populous part of the county north of the Arkansas River. Bumpers went through the motions of campaigning and was beaten handily.

“I really felt that I had done what my father wanted me to do, and I didn’t ever want to go through that again,” he remembered. “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.” — Ernie Dumas