Book: 'Bill Clinton: An American Journey'

Coming in succession to a series of floods, drought, and bankruptcies, these events appeared to many to be a biblical prophecy being fulfilled. Certainly no politician ever came forward to speak for the dispossessed or against cruelty toward and intimidation of blacks. For decades fear had underlain the psyche of a male white population too uneducated to ask questions before resorting to shooting, murder, and lynching-even live "roasting." "The Ku Klux Klan had a strong following throughout the state," wrote the historian of black civil rights in the period after World War I, Mark Schneider. "By 1924 it felt strong enough to contest the governorship in the Democratic primary"-making Arkansas a "dangerous place for African Americans," one in which lynchings demonstrated "the impunity with which racist terrorists acted in Arkansas." Will Turner, accused of attacking a white woman, had been seized from a sheriff's posse, hung, and burned before a crowd of thousands in 1921 in Helena. The Arkansas Survey, one of the state's few black newspapers, noted in an editorial that Helena was "a seething cauldron of hate, when the least indiscretion meant death." Barely a week later Robert Hicks was hung by a public highway near Lake Village for simply sending a note to a white woman. In Little Rock the next year, a suspected armed robber was openly lynched in front of the Como Hotel in the downtown center. "No official action against the lynchers is expected," The New York Times commented. Although the Klan's power had declined thereafter, the tinderbox of race relations had remained easy to strike. When John Carter, a black, was suspected by a mob of raping two white women, in 1927, he was riddled with bullets and his body then towed around the black neighborhoods of the capital and finally set on fire on a pyre constructed of wooden pews ripped out of a black church-with no one indicted by the subsequent grand jury.

A century before, Arkansas had proudly advertised itself as an "asylum for the emigrant"; indeed, the "last asylum," as one group of proponents in Little Rock had stated, drawing white immigrants from Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Mark Twain, however, had pictured it as a land of cowardly lynch mobs and "lunkheads," the state becoming a symbol of much that was wrong, even evil, in America-symbolized in its political machinations. The Civil War had made an end of slavery, but the subsequent secret ballot, for example, had simply been used, in tandem with the notoriously backward and segregated public education system, to disenfranchise blacks, who, if illiterate, had to declare this at the polling precinct and submit to being intimidated, often at the end of white men's guns. Poll tax requirements had also militated against blacks' voting, so that between 1890 and 1894 the black vote had decreased in Arkansas by a staggering 65,000! Fearing a coalition between Republicans (the victors in the Civil War) and agrarian reformers, the Democratic Party in Arkansas had retrenched to become the party of reactionary conservatism and segregation: "Dixiecrats." In a move that contradicted the very meaning of its party name, the Arkansas Democratic Central Committee had even changed the nomination procedures for state primaries. Official Democratic Party candidates had to be chosen by a "popular" vote, it had determined-but with the proviso that only whites could cast those votes!

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