Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Racial Conflict in Forrest City: The Trial and Triumph of Moderation in an Arkansas Delta Town

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Racial Conflict in Forrest City: The Trial and Triumph of Moderation in an Arkansas Delta Town

Article excerpt

BY THE LATE 1960S, AFRICAN AMERICANS throughout the nation, and especially in the South, were growing impatient with state and local authorities' delay in implementing federal laws and court decisions that had guaranteed them political rights, equal economic opportunities, and the desegregation of public schools. Racial conflict persisted in many parts of the nation, and Forrest City, Arkansas, was no exception. In fact, the town's most serious racial troubles of the twentieth century occurred in 1969 and 1970, well after the signal civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965.

The achievement of first-class citizenship for black residents of Forrest City was hindered by internal divisions within both the African- American and white communities. Blacks divided over tactics. Some wanted to pressure the white community with protest demonstrations and boycotts. Others advocated less militant approaches, using lawsuits and private negotiations with moderate white leaders to bring about change. Whites disagreed over how much and how quickly they should compromise with blacks on the issues of school desegregation, enhanced economic opportunities, and access to political power. The white community, for the most part, divided along class lines. Economically advantaged white business and professional groups generally advocated moderation in meeting the demands of African Americans and proved more willing than the community's elected leaders to give ground on many issues. But less affluent whites, mainly those of the working class and small farmers, seem to have been more likely to oppose compromise, and, as African Americans' demands increased and their protest tactics became more militant, white activists-some belonging to well-known rightwing organizations like the John Birch Society and white citizens' councils- became more obstructionist in their opposition.1 Ultimately, then, the crisis of 1969-1970 revolved around the demands of blacks, but also the issue of which white faction would wield power and negotiate with African Americans.

The multifaceted, year-long conflict in Forrest City had its origins in developments at both the national and local levels. The United States Supreme Court began requiring immediate and total integration of all schools in 1968 and 1969. In addition to the demands made on school officials by federal courts, several leaders of Forrest City's African-American community began to publicly express their discontent with what they believed were oppressive political and economic conditions imposed on them by area whites.2

In 1970, Forrest City's population of 13,000 was evenly divided between white and black. Race relations in the town in the years immediately prior had been complex and contradictory. In many ways, its record was more impressive than other towns in the region. A Memphis reporter noted that Forrest City prided itself on being a model town. Industry thrived and the town claimed to be the first in East Arkansas to admit a black to an all-white school.3 Forrest City schools had indeed officially desegregated in 1964, though, as in other southern communities, its "freedom of choice" plan limited the reach of integration. By 1968, the previously all-white senior and junior high schools had minority enrollments of only 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively, and there were no white students in what had been the black senior and junior high school. Still, restaurants had been desegregated without incident, and black voting had increased substantially during the 1960s. For two decades, the town had been successful at attracting industry, including the Sanyo, Yale and Towne, and Warwick Electronics factories, all of which practiced nondiscrimination in hiring. Moderate white citizens proudly believed Forrest City was a racially progressive town in the heart of the Arkansas delta.4

However, there had been one departure from the town's record of peaceful race relations during the 1960s, and its ill effects would be felt for years. …

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