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Principles over Popularity: The Political Career of Congressman Brooks Hays: Brooks Hays Was a Baptist. He Was Not Just Any Baptist, but a Southern Baptist and Thus a Member of the Largest, Most Prosperous, and Evangelically Aggressive Wing of That Denominational Tradition

By Williams, C. Fred | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Principles over Popularity: The Political Career of Congressman Brooks Hays: Brooks Hays Was a Baptist. He Was Not Just Any Baptist, but a Southern Baptist and Thus a Member of the Largest, Most Prosperous, and Evangelically Aggressive Wing of That Denominational Tradition


Williams, C. Fred, Baptist History and Heritage


From his earliest childhood in the tiny Arkansas community of London to Russellville, Little Rock, and Washington, D. C., Hays consistently remained true to his faith. Critics sometimes found fault with his politics, his attitude toward race relations, even his unceasing loyalty to the South, but his religious sincerity was never questioned. (1)

Hays was a Democrat. He was not just any Democrat, but the "yellow dog" kind that put party loyalty second only to religious beliefs. From the time he attended his first Democratic National Convention at age nine until he ended his career more than sixty years later, he was hooked on politics. (2) Fresh out of George Washington University Law School, in 1922, Hays helped his father, Steele Hays, campaign unsuccessfully for the congressional seat in Arkansas' Fifth District. Failure did not discourage young Hays, and three years later he accepted his first political job. At age twenty-seven, he became an assistant to J. Carrol Cone, the newly elected State Auditor. (3) At age thirty, Hays began the first of three unsuccessful campaigns for governor; and in 1933, he lost what was perhaps his most disappointing political race to David D. Terry to represent that same Fifth District, the same district race lost by his father. The election has become legendary in Arkansas political history, and the margin of victory hinged on Terry's winning 1,850 votes from Yell County's 1,632 registered voters. (4)

Unemployed at age thirty-five, at a time when the Great Depression was entering its most acute phase, Hays became a federal bureaucrat, taking a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was assigned the task of monitoring food relief efforts in Arkansas. This assignment brought him into close contact with the sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and he became particularly sympathetic to their needs. Hays was most concerned about the plight of black farmers. From an early age, he had shown interest in issues related to race. Born in 1898 as the full force of the state's Jim Crow laws began to take effect, Hays watched as society became increasingly segregated. (5) As a pre-teen growing up in Russellville, he frequently explored the "lower end of town" where most of the black citizens lived; he questioned the social conditions he observed there. As a youth he rode the train from Russellville to Little Rock and later expressed shocked at seeing a large group of African American riders forced to stand, crowded together, in a small section while vacant seats were available throughout the white section. (6)

By the time Hays had enrolled in college at the University of Arkansas, he was a determined opponent of race discrimination. While living in Fayetteville, he taught a class on race relations at his fraternity. Later, as a young attorney in Little Rock, he taught Sunday School in the city's Second Baptist Church and helped organize the city's Urban League chapter. While an employee with the USDA, he became a member of the national Commission on Interracial Cooperation, an organization dedicated to helping African Americans improve their social and economic status. He also worked actively, but without success, to get Arkansas' poll tax law repealed. (7)

By the time the United States entered World War II, Hays had a well-established reputation as a Southern Baptist Democrat with a deep sympathy for problems unique to black communities. This identity allowed him to succeed in both religion and politics, but this same identity also became the basis for a career that often ran counter to the mainstream in each profession. This article examines the question of whether Hays the Democrat was defeated by Hays the Baptist.

Hays's Early Political Career

The often-defeated candidate finally got on track in 1942. That year, Hays learned that his old nemesis, David D. Terry, was giving up his Fifth District congressional seat to run for the U.S. Senate.

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