A Man and His Moment of Truth: Half a Century Later

Posted: Nov 14, 2007 12:01 AM
A Man and His Moment of Truth: Half a Century Later

There were giants in the earth in those days, as the Book tells us, and thank goodness they keep reappearing when they are most needed. Like during the bad old days half a century ago here in Arkansas and throughout the South. It was a time when people were confronted with the clearest of political and moral choices, perhaps the clearest since the Civil War itself.

By 1957, the question had become unavoidable: What was it to be, the rule of law or defiance? State Sovereignty or the Union now and forever?

It was a time when every politician, every leader, every minister, every citizen was called on to choose sides, or hunker down and try to stay neutral between right and wrong.

It was a time made for an ambitious demagogue — even in a state then considered moderate in its racial views. That would change soon enough, for the crisis presented an opportunistic governor his chance to become a nigh-eternal incumbent. All he had to do was fan the flames. All he had to do was stir up the gathering hatred and exploit it. He could even shut down the schools if he wanted, and the mob would rage, the crowd cheer, and the voters go his way. Again and again. Which was the choice Orval Faubus made.

Most of the state’s politicians either went along or went passive, ducking for cover during what would become the Great Faubusfear.

Some just skedaddled. The state’s junior senator, always a great internationalist, at least in his own eyes, decided this would be just the right time to take an international tour. His actions in 1957, and the years before and after, would prove a portrait in something other than courage. Having already helped set the tinder by placing his indelible signature on the defiant Southern Manifesto the year before, J. William Fulbright didn’t hang around to watch the Crisis when it burst upon the state.

Instead, he chose to view it from a safe distance — merry old England, where he always did seem more at home. It became a pattern with him. Whenever freedom was being threatened by racial demagogues at home or communist aggression abroad, Sen. Fulbright could be counted on — to suggest appeasement.

Such were the unhappy times. But there were giants in the earth even then. They stood out, perhaps because there were so few of them. A whole slew of repressive laws was rammed through the Arkansas legislature in February of 1957 in anticipation of the Crisis to come.

For example, there was the bill to create a State Sovereignty Commission, a star chamber that would crack down on anyone brave enough to defy the segs. This modern inquisition was given power to subpoena witnesses and records, and summon anyone to appear in closed session. The bill setting up the commission passed the House 88 to 1.

Another bill, clearly aimed at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other uppity outfits, required that such organizations turn over their membership rolls and financial records at the demand of this new Sovereignty Commission. The proposal passed the House 89 to 1.

In both those cases, the lone dissenting vote was cast by a young representative from Hot Springs named Ray S. Smith Jr. The next year, when Orval Faubus was given the power to close the public schools, that outrageous bill passed the House 94 to 1.

Again, the single vote in opposition was cast by Ray Smith. The names of those who voted for it have been largely forgotten, consigned to a kind of merciful oblivion. It was the lone dissenter, Ray Smith, who on his death last week at 83, who would be remembered as a hero.

Ray Smith did Arkansas proud — even if he had to do it alone. His solitary stand against all the febrile forces that pushed Arkansas over the edge in the Furious Fifties could be ranked with the prophetic Isaac Murphy’s lone vote against secession in 1861. On that fateful day, a lady in the gallery threw a bouquet at his feet when that giant in his time took his stand for the Union; the flowers for Ray Smith would come only later, when it became clearer how foresighted he had been.

Ray Smith’s simple courage as a young man in the 1950s would mature over the years into perspective, temperance and wisdom. But always, it would be his singular votes in that time of testing that would be remembered, and honored.

There were indeed giants in the earth in those days. And when the next moment of truth arrives for this state, or this country, their names will be invoked. For the Ray Smiths leave us not only with the memory of their courage at a decisive moment in the past, but a shining example for the future.