Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Fall of a Southern Moderate: Congressman Brooks Hays and the Election of 1958

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Fall of a Southern Moderate: Congressman Brooks Hays and the Election of 1958

Article excerpt

THAT A WRITE-IN CANDIDATE, DR. DALE ALFORD of Little Rock, could have defeated eight-term Arkansas congressman Brooks Hays after only an eight-day campaign in 1958 was not only remarkable politically but had important ramifications outside as well as inside Arkansas. By 1958, Hays was at the height of his career, being one of the most widely respected politicians in both the state and the Congress. Hays's stature derived from nearly forty years of public service on the local, state, and national levels. He had served as assistant attorney general for Arkansas in the 1920s, and run two close, albeit unsuccessful, campaigns for governor in 1928 and 1930, while barely old enough to qualify as a candidate. He had also lost a special election for Congress in 1933 when the Arkansas Democratic Party hierarchy switched ballots to his opponent to ensure his defeat.' In 1932, Hays was elected to the Democratic National Committee and later served in the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt as legal counsel for the National Recovery Administration (NRA) as well as in the Department of Agriculture under Secretary Henry Wallace. During the Great Depression, Hays also became involved with the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, working with poor and minority communities in the rural South.2

First elected to represent the Fifth Congressional District of Arkansas in 1942, Hays was by his sixteenth year in office firmly established as a leader both within Congress and the national Democratic Party. In 1958, Hays was elected to a second consecutive term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, becoming one of the few laymen ever to lead the nation's largest religious denomination. Yet, despite this notable career, his opponents quickly ousted him from Arkansas politics.3

This defeat had everything to do with Hays's position as one of the most recognized and vocal spokesmen for the policies collectively known by contemporaries as southern "moderation." Hays and other white southerners who described themselves as "states' rights liberals" consistently attempted to find a compromise in the increasingly heated debate over civil rights in the years immediately following the Second World War. In 1948, Hays himself had proposed the so-called Arkansas Plan in a futile attempt to prevent the northern and southern wings of the Democratic Party from splitting over civil rights at that year's national convention. At the 1952 and 1956 conventions, he helped craft watered-down civil rights planks that prevented another southern walkout but left neither side satisfied. Hays and other southern moderates thought the question of civil rights would best be solved within the South's traditional social institutions, without the intrusion of electoral politics. Moderates viewed religious and civic organizations-not legislation and government intervention-as the primary agents for social change. While they were not unsympathetic to African Americans' aspirations for legal equality, they did not believe it was the national government's proper function to impose social change on the states. Thus, Hays and other moderates disagreed with the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas because, in their view, the Court was assuming the role of a legislative body and therefore acting beyond its constitutional powers.4

While they personally opposed the school desegregation decisions, however, Hays and his fellow moderates always acknowledged the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution and considered the posture that became known as "massive resistance" futile and irresponsible. Though they advocated continued segregation, moderates consistently supported compliance with federal court decisions. They vehemently opposed violence as well as "interposition" laws by which southern state legislatures asserted their sovereignty in an attempt to block federal action. Hays, nevertheless, reluctantly signed the 1956 Southern Manifesto-a strongly worded denunciation of the Brown decision circulated among southern congressman-in order, he hoped, to make "a proper statement of the South's objections to the overthrow of the Plessy v. …

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