WELL REHEARSED: Mark Pryor took the Arkansas Comes First motto from his father and was quoting it admiringly in a UA paper in 1986.

Tom Cotton’s writings during student days at Harvard have drawn a lot of attention and now it’s Sen. Mark Pryor’s turn.

A right-wing publication in Washington, the Free Beacon, has posted a 30-page paper he wrote at the University of Arkansas in 1985 about state politics.


Here’s the full thesis, “The Two Party System in Arkansas,” taken from the university’s special collections.

The Free Beacon spins the work to a degree as reflective of Pryor’s own thoughts, rather than an effort to explain the outlook of a Democratic Party-controlled state that famously split votes in 1968 for William Fulbright, George Wallace and Winthrop Rockefeller.

Consider the headline:


Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor: Desegregation an ‘Unwilling Invasion’

Did that mean Mark Pryor was a foe of desegregation of Central High School in 1957? No. He writes:

“Arkansas has been invaded unwillingly twice. Once in reality and once figuratively,” wrote Pryor.

“The Civil War provided the real invasion. The figurative invasion took place in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School. That event took a local problem out of the local authorities’ hands. The federal government had again forced its will on the people of Arkansas.”

He’s expressing the feelings of the majority at the time, well-reflected in the rise of Orval Faubus’ dominance and proclamations by all but a doughty band of constitutionalists.

The article continues with this selective quoting:

While Pryor wrote that the Arkansas governor’s refusal to integrate the school caused an “embarrassing escapade that marred our character and reputation greatly,” he also argued that the “state had suffered enough” from the federal desegregation effort and “so it formed an iron-clad Democratic machine and would accept no challenge to it.”

All of this is part of Pryor’s effort to explain whether a two-party system then existed in Arkansas. He writes that some movement had been made in that direction. But as for Central, he also wrote that Arkansas had a mild nature and a poll at the time showed “a majority of Arkansans preferred desegregation to violence.” 


Even in 1986, Pryor demonstrated a bipartisan streak. He said through the 1960s Democrats were responsible for everything that Arkansas achieved. But he observed: “Hearing this, a Republican should quickly point out, that ‘if one takes credit for the rain he deserves credit for the drought.'”

In describing the “invasions” of Arkansa, Pryor was drawing parallels with events that had shaped Russian political history. After observing that the federal government had forced its will on Little Rock, fuller context follows:

If Russian historians are correct in concluding that outside threats make for strong governments, then it could be said that, following the Civil War, Arkansas strongly desired a one-party state. The feeling inside the Arkansas psyche could have mostly been to united behind one strong party for protection. The Bible says that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The state had suffered enough, so it formed an iron-clad Democratic machine and would accept no challenge to it. Today, Arkansas still bears scars from the 1957 crisis. It is evidence that the state had an isolationist attitude. Although Jim Crow was dying and the South’s blacks were destined to improve their lot, the state’s governor refused to allow the state to integrate its largest high school. Orval Faubus’s notion was doomed to fail and everyone knew it. But, for the sake of self-identity and a lingering state’s rights attitude, Arkansas trudged through an embarrassing escape that marred our character and reputation greatly.

It is a familiar recitation of Arkansas political history that analyzes how Arkansans reacted to historic events and how that shaped the development of the state’s political parties. It reveals — as Cotton’s writing revealed — a younger version of a familiar politician. As a teen at Harvard, Cotton was already planted firmly in the right wing. At the UA, Pryor was firmly planted in his father’s footsteps — a moderate pragmatist willing to acknowledge competing sides to issues and, yes, putting “Arkansas First.”

Pryor’s spokesman gave this article more credit than it deserved in saying:

“Nobody has done more than Mark to honor the heroism of the Little Rock Nine and their courageous stand for integration, or to spotlight this embarrassing episode in our state’s history. Junk tabloids can manipulate Mark’s words, but they can’t change the fact that he personally secured the funding for the National Park Service museum at Central High School.”

It would take some wild spinning to make this reflect poorly on Mark Pryor’s view on race.

UPDATE — Talking Points Memo saw the same giant flaw in the Free Beacon report that I did — a “brutal headline” that suggested he opposed desegregation in the 1950s. No, he didn’t.

A fairer reading of the thesis, in context, is that Pryor was describing — and condemning — the mentality underlying Arkansas’s rebellion against the federal intervention, which sought to bring down racial barriers and put an end to the Jim Crow era.