No politician came forward on the state scene who was capable of mitigating the effects of the meteorological and financial drought. Fraud, intimidation, localism, and racism had long characterized Arkansas politics, leaving the state prostrate in the face of the economic debacle. The state's roads were the worst in the country, much highway spending having gone into the pockets of officials rather than into paving. Public education was probably the poorest in the United States, with schoolteachers licensed through a feeble county examination that required only four years of high school. The public debt, meanwhile, was the highest in the country. In a state of dirt roads, "dirt poor" became a reality, not a metaphor.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 white and black families-in a state of less than 2 million inhabitants-soon required Red Cross relief. "Barefoot and without decent clothes, no meal, no flour in the bin, ragged children crying from hunger . . . nothing but hunger and misery," one aid worker described rural Arkansas as the Depression took hold. Strikes and protests were beaten down with a ruthlessness that shocked the nation. Attempts by federal officials, journalists, or outsiders to assess the economic, educational, social, and racial problems of Arkansas were met by vigilante violence that would have done justice to a banana republic-erstwhile slavery having been transformed into a peonage system that seemed little better. Visiting journalists described Arkansas, as the state historian Ben Johnson commented, "as a benighted land almost without parallel in the world."