Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Grassroots Politics of Hard Times: Wilbur D. Mills' Career as White County Judge

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Grassroots Politics of Hard Times: Wilbur D. Mills' Career as White County Judge

Article excerpt

THE GREAT DEPRESSION CHANGED THE NATION'S politics from the top down. At every level, the challenges posed by the economic crisis brought a whole new generation to power. Even local government was altered by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. One of these local agents of change would be Wilbur Mills, the Arkansan who, as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the U. S. House of Representatives, would thirty years later be a principal in momentous attempts to expand upon the New Deal's legacy (Mills was chief architect of the Medicare and Medicaid systems). Mills' recollections of his first campaign and his service in county government during the 1930s offer a fascinating perspective on the shaping of a man who would become a crucial figure in Arkansas and American politics.

Wilbur Mills came from Kensett, a small railroad town of nearly 1,000 residents, in White County, Arkansas. This sparsely populated and rural county was in dire straits when Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933. While an estimated one in four American workers was unemployed, in White County it was more like one in two. The county was in debt. Diseases were spreading, stiff cases of tuberculosis and pneumonia among them. Mills' father, Ardra Pickens Mills, kept his Bank of Kensett open and sound and his A. P. Mills General Store fully stocked. He offered easy credit. But there were few other points of support, optimism, or hope in the town or county.

Young Mills was in his third year at Harvard Law School in early 1933. Business was at a standstill and a feeling of panic gripped the nation. But the prospect of change moved Mills. At Harvard, Felix Frankfurter urged his young students to go to Washington, DC or to go home and run for office. Mills later recalled how anxious he was to become a part of the governing process and be involved in an exciting new reform movement. "I was scared for my country and anxious to put an end to poverty and to wars, so Professor Frankfurter's call to arms was just what I needed to know it was time for me to go home."1

Mills' first task upon returning home, however, was to help his father at the bank. Though Mills was offered $1,800 a year to practice law, his father's cashier had just quit. A. P. Mills met Wilbur when he stepped off the train and turned the bank over to him before he had time even to take his luggage home. He became cashier in the midst of a national banking crisis. Roosevelt's first goal in 1933 had been to end the wave of bank failures that were frightening the public. Depositors rushed to withdraw their money before their banks failed. Roosevelt declared a "bank holiday," closing all banks on March 6. A. P. Mills refused to close the Bank of Kensett. On March 9, Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act, allowing government inspectors to check each bank's records and to reopen only those banks in strong financial condition. The Bank of Kensett, as expected, was quickly confirmed as sound.2

But young Mills had already begun to prepare for public service. He had majored in history and debate at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas before going to Harvard. Mills seems to have determined to start at the top, at least as far as local government was concerned. He had his eye on the county judgeship. At the time, political scientist Diane Blair has written, an Arkansas county judge was "the closest thing to an uncrowned king that the American political system had to offer." In addition to exercising certain judicial duties, the county judge was, in effect, the county's chief executive, overseeing local spending, the hiring and firing of public employees, and road building. His authority was checked in only the most pro forma ways by the quorum court, an annual assembly of the county's justices of the peace.3

As Mills contemplated candidacy for the judgeship, White County was hitting rock bottom. The record low came in 1933 when there were an estimated 4,627 unemployed men in the county. …

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