Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Vote as You Pray: The 1928 Election in Washington County, Arkansas

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Vote as You Pray: The 1928 Election in Washington County, Arkansas

Article excerpt

ON OCTOBER 20, 1928, AN ADVERTISEMENT in the Fayetteville Daily Democrat informed readers that Washington County, Arkansas's most prominent clergyman, Rev. H. K. Morehead, had failed to pay his poll tax, rendering him ineligible to vote in that year's election. The ad crowed, "After weeks of labor in an effort to persuade Southern Democrats to desert the party of their fathers and join hands with the most corrupt political machine the world has ever known, it develops that the Reverend Gentlemen . . . is unable to vote." Paid for by the Smith-Robinson Club of Washington County, the ad suggested, "A man unwilling to contribute ONE DOLLAR to the common school fund for a poll tax, has no right to advise Democrats how to vote."1 The advertisement clearly illustrates not only Democrats' fears that white southerners would shrug off their traditional allegiances in the 1928 presidential election but also the complex collision of church and state that occurred that year in Arkansas. Many Protestant leaders around the country voiced their disapproval of Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith because of his perceived hostility to prohibition and his Catholicism. But Reverend Morehead and other Arkansas ministers were immersed in another controversy mixing religion and politics. In that same election, the state's voters would determine the fate of Initiated Act No. 1, which would ban the teaching of evolution in tax-supported schools. Numerous ministers around the state had been campaigning to remove evolution from schools' curriculum since 1926. Religious elements in the presidential campaign compounded the controversy, creating complex fractures in longstanding party and religious allegiances.

Washington County was one of many Arkansas counties where evolution and Al Smith were public, fiercely contested issues that brought the church into the political realm. Local Protestant leaders urged both the passage of Initiated Act No. 1 and the election of Smith's Republican opponent Herbert Hoover. They might appear to have made their case, since similar proportions of voters backed Hoover and voted to ban the teaching of evolution. Despite the county's longstanding loyalty to the Democratic party, the Republican presidential candidate received 56 percent of its votes, a twenty-point increase from the 1924 election. By contrast, Hoover topped the 1924 totals by just ten points statewide. Washington County, the home of the state's flagship university, passed the anti-evolution act with a 61 percent majority, close to the 63 percent majority statewide. But the seeming closeness of the Hoover and antievolution vote masked deep differences within the county. Only 30 percent of voters in the county seat of Fayetteville favored the act, making evident the conflict that emerged between church leaders and the university community. University president John C. Futrall and much of his faculty were among the state's most vocal opponents of the teaching ban. Other communities in the county showed considerable variation in their voting against the wet Catholic Smith and for the ban on the teaching of evolution, making clear that different sets of people were responsible for the Hoover and anti-evolution majorities. The county was not moving in lockstep with its ministers.

Al Smith received only 41 percent of the popular vote in 1928 and lost the electoral vote, 444 to 87.2 Republicans carried four southern states-Texas, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina-for the first time since Reconstruction, as well as Tennessee and Kentucky. Historians disagree on the reasons for Republican success, but most cite Smith's Catholicism, Democrats' more lenient prohibition platform, and the country's economic prosperity. Some also cite Smith's urban, immigrant roots and his connection with New York City's Tammany Hall machine. Most southern Democrats could have found several reasons not to vote for Smith, as many were dry Protestants who might be suspicious of Catholicism and urbanites. …

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