When a reporter suggested that Joyce Elliott was the scrappiest of Arkansas’s female legislators, Rita Sklar corrected him. Elliott is the scrappiest of all the legislators, Sklar said. A lobbyist for the ACLU, Sklar spends her own days at the legislature in outnumbered combat with reactionaries who hate her and her organization and the causes it represents. Praise from her is praise from Caesarina.
“She’s got tremendous integrity,” Sklar said of Elliott. “Her only concern is what is the best policy for the people of Arkansas. She’s terrifically smart, she’s interested in issues, and if there’s an issue she’s not familiar with, she has an open mind. And she’s one of the few pro-choice, pro-women voices left in the legislature.”
Standing up for women is what the reporter had in mind about Elliott. A considerable number of anti-abortion/anti-woman bills are introduced in the legislature, such as a bill this session to require teen-agers to obtain parental consent before they can have an abortion. These bills are always sponsored by men who claim that their real aim is to protect women. Elliott stands up and tells them that what they’re saying is bunk.
“If they were interested in protecting women, they’d let women have sovereignty over their own bodies,” she said in an interview. “I’ve said that up-front and openly. What they’re doing is chipping away at Roe v. Wade. [The U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.] These bills are always brought by men who never have to face the decision of abortion. I find very insulting the assumption that women decide on abortion the way they decide to have a drink of water. It’s a very agonizing decision.”
Pregnant teen-agers are not the only underdogs championed by Elliott, a third-term Democrat from Little Rock. She’s sponsoring a bill this session to make illegal aliens eligible for state-funded college scholarships and in-state college tuition rates. Two years ago, she was a sponsor of a “hate crimes” bill that would have enhanced penalties for crimes committed specifically because the victim was a member of a certain group — a woman, a black, a gay, a Latino, a white man, whatever. All the other states have such laws. Elliott’s bill was defeated in committee, partly because some black male ministers testified against it. They objected because gays were included. The experience disturbed Elliott, who is black herself.
“I would expect ministers to speak up for the downtrodden,” she said. “I can’t discriminate against anybody for things they can’t change. I can’t discriminate against them simply because they belong to a category. I never decided I would be heterosexual, and I don’t believe gays decide to be homosexual. It’s something you just are.”
The sexual bias in the legislature is apparent. Is there racial bias too?
“I think sometimes [white] legislators assume a bill is a minority issue because I bring it up. I’ve gotten mail from people on the alien bill saying ‘You’re only doing this because they’re a minority.’ I don’t look at hate crimes as a minority issue. Everybody should be concerned about hate crimes. How to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday — that’s not a minority issue.”
“I have the double burden of being a woman and a minority,” Elliott said. “But I’ve had that since I was a child. [She is 53 now, but looks younger.] I can accept it.”
Her childhood was spent at Willisville, a small town in Nevada County, and her childhood experiences helped shape the woman she is today. It was a time when court-ordered desegregation was coming to the schools of South Arkansas. School boundary lines were redrawn in Nevada County so that four African-American families whose children had previously attended an all-black school were now in the attendance zone of the previously all-white Willisville schools. Elliott’s family was one of the four.
Elliott said she’s considered writing a book called “There Were No Cameras” about desegregation in places like Willisville. “It was a tough time.” She recalls being a good basketball player. But when she went out for the Willisville High team in the 10th grade, the coach told her, “ ‘We don’t have a uniform that will fit you.’ We both knew it was a lie. I was normal-sized. I did get to play in my junior and senior years, after some of the white girls graduated.”
After one year in the integrated school, the black families were told they could return to the all-black school. Three of the families did. Elliott’s family stayed with Willisville. She and her four siblings were now the only black kids in the school.
“I knew somebody had to do it,” she said. “I was not going back under any condition.” She’d been inspired by reading about Gandhi, Thoreau and Emerson, and by the living example of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Some white students ignored us, some were openly hostile. The Gillespie girls were very friendly; three or four others were somewhat friendly. The most hostile person has since apologized. He has worked very hard to make up for that.” A couple of teachers befriended her, and a bus driver. Other members of the faculty were less kind.
She’d always been the top student in her class at the black school. She said that if she’d stayed there, she would have been the valedictorian of her graduating class, and the valedictorian always received a scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
At Willisville, however, “Teachers graded me down. They made sure I didn’t graduate at the top of the class.”
Her father’s brother had been in World War II, and came home to Arkansas thinking he’d be treated differently because of his service. He wasn’t, and he angrily moved to Michigan and persuaded other family members to go too. He prospered there, and offered to pay Elliott’s way through college, if she would go outside the South, preferably to the University of Michigan. But Elliott had decided to attend Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, again feeling that “Somebody had to do it.” Not many blacks were attending SAU at the time. Also, she says, “I thought my uncle would help anyway. He didn’t.”
She had no scholarship, but she worked and got grants. After her freshman year, she worked as a tutor for other students. The tutoring kept her from playing basketball. Most of the students she tutored were male athletes on full scholarship. The experience “womanized me and feminized me at the age of 19,” she said. She doesn’t consider her attendance at SAU a mistake, though. “I got a very fine education there.”
She graduated in 1973 and started teaching. “I had some thoughts of going into broadcasting, but there were not many people of color in that field at the time. I was prepared to teach and felt I could make more of a difference teaching.” She went to New Boston, Texas, where they’d never had a fulltime black teacher. She got married, and went to Tampa, Fla., where she taught in a “top-flight” high school. She came home to Arkansas, taught in El Dorado, got divorced, and went to Minnesota for a change of scene. Then she came back. “It’s like I have an umbilical cord connecting me to Arkansas.” In 1984, she moved to the Little Rock area, and has been here ever since.
At one point, she was a lobbyist for the Arkansas Education Association, the teachers’ union. Her colleague today, state Rep. Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff, was a member of the Senate at the time. He remembers Elliott the lobbyist as being very aggressive, or, as he puts it, “She was tough as s*** then. She’d get on your butt. She’s mellowed.” She was tough enough that at one point she became the co-leader of a movement to establish a new teachers’ group in competition with the AEA. The rebellion failed, and she more or less reconciled with the AEA.
Elliott said that over the years, she has learned “immense patience.”
“I know now that things are not going to change right away. That’s helpful as a schoolteacher and a politician.”
She said she became fascinated with politics when she was a child, and John Kennedy was running for president. In the fourth grade, a teacher who was trying to instruct her in math sent her to the principal’s office because all Elliott wanted to talk about was the Kennedy-Nixon debates. So she and the principal talked politics.
She waited to run for office herself until her son was out of high school. He’s now a UALR student. When a House seat opened up in 2000, she ran for it and won. Now she is chairman of the House Education Committee, and that has put her in the middle of some of the most important decision-making of this session. She has won the respect even of people who usually disagree with her. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page recently published a valentine to her — “Our Favorite Legislator,” or something like that — because of her sponsorship of the alien scholarship bill. But the conservative D-G is almost always opposed to Elliott on abortion, hate crimes and other progressive legislation. Elliott said she was pleased by the editorial, but “immensely surprised.”
She taught school for 31 years, including her first two terms in the House. But special legislative sessions and other demands of office made it necessary to give up teaching. She works for the College Board now, helping school districts improve their curriculum.
Because of term limits, she can’t serve in the House again. But, she said, “I want to stay in politics. It’s my preferred form of public service now, my calling. I could run for statewide office or another local office.” (A suggestion: The Little Rock Board of Directors could use someone like Joyce Elliott.) Unless she changes her residence, she can’t run for the Senate in 2006. She lives in the Senate district of Irma Hunter Brown, another black woman, and Brown’s term won’t expire until 2008.
Representative Bradford, 64, another fighting liberal who’ll have to leave the House next year, won’t seek another office himself, but, he said, “There needs to be a future for her [Elliott] after she terms out this year. She’s very well respected, well informed, high-energy. She brings a lot to the table.”
He might have added that she’s among the legislature’s most photogenic members — her picture seems to be in the paper about every other day — with her chiseled features and the close-cropped hair that is sort of a trademark. “I’m very active physically,” she said. “I love hiking and whitewater rafting. Tending my hair was just too much trouble, so I cut it off about 15 years ago.”