With your forbearance, I shall recount an important and long-ago but poorly noted interlude in Arkansas and American history in which I was a callow spectator. It involved the soon-to-be assassinated president of the United States, an aged leftist hillbilly in the Arkansas Ozarks, the hillbilly’s adoring daughter, the governor of Arkansas and assorted politicians and journalists.
Those events of 58 years ago offer a good lesson and perhaps an antidote to the craziness that afflicts Arkansas and the nation this spring. I refer to the revival of so many old conspiracy myths that, at least since the Red Summer at the end of World War I, sometimes plagued but more often only enlivened the body politic. You know: The socialists/communists are coming.
They are coming for your guns. They are driving working people into unions to destroy capitalism and freedom; erasing history by banishing memorials to heroes like Robert E. Lee who betrayed the nation; trying to steal elections from Donald Trump; ennobling Black people at the expense of others; and teaching schoolchildren racial theories to make them hate America.
You heard all those plots from the lips of Arkansas legislators and Trump Republicans everywhere this spring as they passed laws to protect memorials to defenders of slavery, stop teachers from talking about the role of race and discrimination in Arkansas and American history, reverse the easy access to the ballot that produced a historic tide of votes during the pandemic of 2020 (adding 11 million votes, by the way, to Trump’s total from 2016), and even prevent transgender youngsters from getting medical assistance, which socialists are supposed to believe they should be able to get.
Too much there to refute, so little space. Let it suffice that you will be hard-pressed to round up 10 real socialists in Arkansas, from the ivory towers to the hills and swamps. But let’s think only about the biggest absurdity — the horror of talking about race or any other form of bias in classes where kids are supposed to learn history. It arises from fury around the discovery of the latest — critical race theory or The 1619 Project — of thousands of ideas postulated by academicians, educators and failed commanders about how the lineage, successes and failures of nations and states should be treated by teachers and historical writers. The owner of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and other newspapers was so scared of the race-theory plot that he humiliated himself and his publications by using his $25 million gift to the University of North Carolina to try to stop the school from hiring a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist because she supported the idea of emphasizing race in history studies.
Southerners horrified by critical race theory and the idea of recognizing the introduction of slavery to America as somehow important could profit by reading a few books by Arkansas’s own historians, including the greatest one, C. Vann Woodward, the author of “The Strange Career of Jim Crow.”
America is not alone among nations or peoples plagued or driven by some form of nationalism or chauvinism, whether it is race, tribe, nationality, religion or mere class. It is embedded in the history of every nation and its wars, declines and advances. America is unique, not because it exploited slavery and conquered, killed or expelled Native Americans, but because it was founded on the idea of the equality of everyone on Earth and uniquely across two centuries advanced steadily toward that ideal and also fought to guarantee human rights to people in other lands.
But this was to be about Bonnie and Jack, so let’s get to the story.
In the summer of 1963, President John F. Kennedy, the “Jack” of our tale, faced the second climactic juncture of his brief presidency, after the Cuban missile crisis. He had narrowly won the presidency in 1960 by only vaguely championing civil rights and carried most of the South because he had put a Southerner, Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, on the ticket with him. One of his opponents, the candidate of the National States Rights Party in several states, was the governor of Arkansas, Orval E. Faubus, who got 45,000 votes.
By the early fall of 1963, the slow pace of Southern school integration had come to a standstill. Kennedy had introduced a weak civil rights bill in January but it was going nowhere. The voting rights marches and demonstrations in the Deep South were producing nothing but violence against Blacks and their occasional white allies. In early September white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four Black girls and injuring 14 people. Police killed two other children trying to disperse the angry crowd. In Little Rock, the infamous Birmingham police chief, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, urged a crowd of white supremacists to use force — dogs, fire hoses or whatever, as he had at Birmingham — to stop Black people from integrating any place in Arkansas.
On June 11, emboldened by his vice president, Jack Kennedy had made the first strong civil rights speech of his life and eight days later sent Congress the outlines of what would become, but after his assassination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It included a section integrating public accommodations and ending hiring discrimination. That law and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enfranchised Blacks across the Deep South, would change America like nothing since the Civil War. They brought Black men and women into the mainstream of American life, from sports to commerce and arts and entertainment. But in September and October 1963 the issue seemed to assure for Jack Kennedy nothing but defeat in the next election because he would lose the Southern states that had put him over Richard Nixon in 1960.
Work was ending on the Greers Ferry Dam on the Little Red River at Heber Springs and Rep. Wilbur D. Mills, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the man who was writing the health care bill (Medicare and Medicaid) that would fulfill Kennedy’s campaign promise, asked the president to come down south to Arkansas to dedicate the dam.
Kennedy agreed and on Oct. 3, 1963, made the visit to Heber Springs and Little Rock. Seven weeks later, he would make a second political trip south, to Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald shot him.
It was the first presidential visit to Arkansas since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. While he was campaigning in 1960, I watched Kennedy step across the border into Arkansas at Texarkana and make a few remarks.
Six Arkansas members of Congress, all powerful committee chairmen, were on the platform with Kennedy at Greers Ferry Dam, each of whom he lauded lavishly. Each of them, incidentally, had signed the Southern Manifesto and would vote against all the civil rights bills that were coming.
Covering the event for the Arkansas Gazette, I was seated at the foot of the stage, right below Kennedy and the man who would introduce him, Governor Faubus. Kennedy was tanned and glowing in the midday sun. Faubus, like the others on stage, seemed pale by comparison but unlike all the others was unsmiling, even sullen. Faubus’ introduction hardly mentioned Kennedy but mostly was an attack on his civil rights bill and its public accommodations section, which he said was unconstitutional. He called it the “civil wrongs bill.”
I thought it was amazing discourtesy. Kennedy sat next to the lectern impassively, his arms crossed, perhaps even with a faint smile. He got up, thanked the governor and joked about the power of Mills and the other Arkies on the stage (he said he would happily have sung “Down by the Old Mill Stream” if asked). He proclaimed his and the nation’s debt to all of them and spoke of the great progress he hoped Arkansas would make by the investment in projects like the dam and its hydroelectric power. He didn’t mention civil rights.
I would later discover the cause of Kennedy’s equanimity that day and perhaps even a reason he had accepted Mills’ invitation. It is all in the presidential papers at the JFK Library at Boston, now online.
Afterward, Faubus and Kennedy flew back to Little Rock and the president made an appearance at the state fair. Under a tent where the president was supposed to lunch, he sat with Sam Faubus of the Ozark hamlet where his son, the governor, grew up. Sam took his son’s seat. I never asked but I presumed that Orval arranged for his somewhat estranged dad to lunch with the old man’s idol. Sam had written many letters to the Gazette, a few praising Kennedy and others mildly critical of Orval over the school crisis, all under the pseudonym “Jimmie Higgins.” Higgins was an imaginary figure who represented the ideal of the young communist. Sam had been an organizer for the Socialist Party in the 1920s.
While Sam was munching, the president told him that he had been told about the supportive letters that Sam had written and that he had received a wonderful letter from Sam’s daughter — Orval’s sister — assuring him that he was on the right course with civil rights and that he had the support of all her family except Orval and that he would carry the South again. Sam told Patrick J. Owens, my friend and exemplar, about the president’s conversation a few days later.
Her letter was more than a paean to a job well done. It was a lament of the white supremacy that dominated the rural mountain society where she had grown up. Here is the letter:
August 29, 1963
6032 San Yuba Way
Buena Park, Calif.
Dear Mr. President,
I’m writing to you in great hope — that you will read this (So you who opens this, please give it to the President). My purpose in writing is to give you hope in the fight for civil rights — I want you to know there are many in the South who are for you tho are afraid to speak out.
I am the sister of the Governor of Arkansas, born and raised on a hill side farm — scratching out a bare existence — from the land.
We knew dire poverty which was hardest to bare in time of sickness — But we knew much joy and happiness also as we had the beauty of the Ozarks and each other — My mother died when I was 13 leaving 2 younger than me, 7 children in all — 3 boys and 4 girls.
My father was not a church going man but he taught us right from wrong — He read everything he could beg or borrow as did we all.
Most of all he taught us to never judge a man by the color of his skin — never to discriminate against him because of his race or religion.
We all grew up with this in our hearts and practiced it in our daily lives — We grew up to be good citizens — Many in our “neck of the woods” hated colored people but we defended them and wished them well — My heart ached as a child when I’d pass thru “nigger town” on the edge of Fayetteville, Arkansas — You see I knew what poverty was but I was lucky I wasn’t yelled at, sneered at and denied the right to attend the movie, eat in a cafe or go to school.
My brother Orval, the oldest of our family, was the only one to obtain a highschool education. We did not have his driving ambition and dropped out along the way.
I shall never forget the times we rooted for Joe Louis — After working in the fields all day we’d rush home, do the chores — run to the creek near by for our daily bath — eat our supper (usually cornbread and milk) and walk two miles to hear the fight on our neighbors radio. Most of the crowd wished his defeat because he was a “nigger” but we always defended him because of his great skill.
We were a close family and loved each other dearly. As we grew up we drifted away in search of a better way of life — all of us but Orval — he started teaching school at 18 — after that came county politics then at last the Governor of Arkansas — you can imagine our pride and joy in him as we’d always looked up to him.
But in Sept. 1957 we were shocked as was the nation when news of Little Rock shook the world — first we searched for the “true” facts so that we’d understand his actions.
We found no “true facts” that would justify his actions as we searched our hearts — altho we have struggled and suffered together and love him dearly we find we must speak out for what we know is right — my father is 78, very lame — can’t walk without crutches but his mind is keen as ever — lately he has been defending you by writing letters to the local paper.
Many of them are returned but he does what he can — 5 of my brothers and sisters are for you also. I speak out when ever I think it will help you — We not only agree on the civil rights issue but the Medicare bill and the one for the aged must be passed for the good of our country — Please do not dispare there are many for you who are afraid to speak out but when no one is looking over their shoulder — will vote for you. I’ve written to let you know you have supporters where you least expect them.
Before I close, I wish to say my family—my husband Raul my son Reginald 17 and my 14 yr. old daughter, have grieved with you in the loss of your darling baby. [President Kennedy’s 2-day-old son had died 20 days earlier of a respiratory syndrome.]
May God be with you in your fight for peace and justice.
Bonnie Faubus Salcido
Bonnie Salcido never spoke to her eldest brother again nor attended his funeral in 1994. She died in 2013 at the age of 93.
But there is a little more to the story, according to the Kennedy papers. A letter written by Sam Faubus a few weeks earlier to Harry S. Ashmore, the former executive editor of the Gazette, then with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in California, had reached Kennedy, thanks to Ashmore and a mutual friend, the editor of the Miami News.
Bruce Bennett, the fire-breathing attorney general of Arkansas, a subject of mine at the state Capitol and earlier when both of us were around the courthouse every day at El Dorado, had been in Washington testifying before Congress on the evils of Kennedy’s civil rights bill and of racial integration. It was all a plot directed in Moscow. Bennett resurrected Commonwealth College, the socialist self-help school at Mena where Orval Faubus went to school and was president of the student body. Bennett had tried to beat Faubus in 1960 by outsegging him and then got back into the AG’s office in 1962 to await another chance to racebait himself into the governor’s office.
Ashmore read about Bennett’s nutty testimony in California and sent a whimsical letter to the Gazette noting Bennett’s factual errors and ending by sort of defending Governor Faubus against Bennett’s hints that the governor of Arkansas was soft on the Negro question because of his old socialist school experience. He ended his letter, which the Gazette printed July 23, this way:
“Now that a new season of wanton character assassination has reintroduced the Commonwealth College case to public discussion, I recognize a duty to again make my findings available to the readers of the Gazette: Mr. Faubus is not a Communist, and he knows it.”
Sam read the letter and scribbled a note to Ashmore in Santa Barbara, California, thanking him for the somewhat kind words about his son. He revealed that he was the Jimmie Higgins who had written the letters to the Gazette over the years.
Ashmore sent Sam’s letter to his friend, the Miami editor, who forwarded it to his friend Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary, suggesting that she share Sam Faubus’ and Ashmore’s letters with the president. “Perhaps the attached will lighten the President’s burden for a moment,” he said.
I like to think that the faint smile I detected on Jack Kennedy’s face as Faubus ranted that October day was his recollection of reading the words of Bonnie, Sam, Orval, Ashmore and my rabble-rousing neighbor Bruce. We cannot be sure, but all of the Faubus correspondence may have more than amused the president. Even greater personal misfortunes but posthumous victories beckoned. In Arkansas on Nov. 22, some schoolchildren reportedly cheered intercom announcements of Kennedy’s murder, but in four more races for governor Orval Faubus never again ranted about preserving segregation. He endorsed Jesse Jackson for president in 1988.