The 2015 honorees represent pioneers in the areas of politics and law who have made significant contributions to racial equality in Arkansas.
Politics and Law have been two central pillars in civil rights struggles. The honorees here have contributed to those struggles in a number of ways. Some were grassroots community political leaders: Annie Mae Bankhead was active in the black College Station neighborhood; Charles Bussey was leader of the Veterans Good Government Association and became the city’s first black mayor in 1980; Jeffery Hawkins was for decades the unofficial mayor of Little Rock’s black East End neighborhood; and I. S. McClinton was the head of the Arkansas Democratic Voters Association. Some were elected or appointed officials: Irma Hunter Brown was the first black woman elected to the Arkansas General Assembly; Mahlon Martin was the first black city manager of Little Rock; Richard L. Mays and Henry Wilkins III were among the first blacks elected to the Arkansas General Assembly in the twentieth century in 1972; and Lottie Shackleford was the first woman mayor of Little Rock. Some were attorneys: Wiley Branton was head of the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project in the 1960s; William Harold Flowers laid the foundations for the Arkansas State Conference of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branches; Scipio Africanus Jones was a black Republican who defended twelve prisoners for their role in the 1919 Elaine Race Riot; Olly Neal was the first black district prosecuting attorney in Arkansas and later served on the Arkansas Court of Appeals; and John Walker for over five decades has been involved in civil rights activism in the courts, most notably in school desegregation cases. You can read more about black politics in Arkansas in this online Arkansas Times article.
Annie Mae Bankhead was born in Brooksville, Mississippi, in 1904. She and her family moved to College Station, Pulaski County, in 1926 when she was nineteen. Bankhead spearheaded efforts to gain basic necessities, such as gas, running water and electricity. She organized the Progressive League that rallied residents to these and other causes, including voting rights. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson named her to his War on Poverty Advisory Committee. In 1969, she received the “Woman of Conscience” Award from the National Council of Women. In 1980, a street in College Station was renamed in her honor and she received the Arkansas Community Services Award. In 1987, Newsweek magazine cited her as one of “America’s Unsung Heroes.” Bankhead died in Chicago, Illinois, in 1989.
Wiley A. Branton Sr. was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1923. His family started the first taxi company in Pine Bluff, where he worked in his teenage years. After high school he enrolled at Arkansas AM&N College (later the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). After returning from World War II, Branton became one of the first “Six Pioneers” to desegregate the University of Arkansas Law School. Branton’s most famous case was Aaron v. Cooper (1956) in which he represented the families of black students that wished to attend Little Rock’s Central High School. In the 1960s, Branton directed the Voter Education Project (VEP) in Atlanta, Georgia, which focused on increasing the number of black voters in the South. In 1965, he was appointed to the President’s Council on Equal Opportunity, where he served as the executive secretary. He also served as a special consultant to the Attorney General. From 1977 to 1983, Branton served as Dean of Howard University Law School. Branton died in Washington, D.C. in 1988.
Irma Hunter Brown was born in Tampa, Florida, in 1939. She attended North Little Rock’s Shorter College and then graduated magma cum laude with a B.A. degree in Education and History at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She did graduate work at the University of Memphis and the Teachers College in Washington, D.C. Brown taught in both Memphis and Washington, D.C. public schools. Her career in politics began in 1980 when she was the first African American woman elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives. She served nine terms until 1998, after which she became president of Shorter College. In 2003, after another election victory, Brown became the first African American woman to serve in the Arkansas Senate.
Charles E. Bussey Jr. was born in Stamps, Arkansas, in 1918. After completing his undergraduate studies at Bishop College in Texas, he enlisted in the army and was a private during World War II. After the war, Bussey relocated to Little Rock and organized the Veterans’ Good Government Association, an organization that encouraged other black veterans to participate in government. He was the first African American to serve on the Little Rock City Board of Directors since Reconstruction, the first African American deputy sheriff of Pulaski County, and the first African American mayor of Little Rock. Bussey died in 1996. In 2005, the city of Little Rock renamed 20th street in his honor.
William Harold Flowers was born in Stamps, Arkansas, in 1911. He completed his high school education and earned a B.Sc. at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Afterwards, he enrolled at Robert H. Terrell School of Law in Washington, D.C. Flowers passed the bar examination in Arkansas in 1935 and opened a private practice in Pine Bluff in 1938. In 1940, he organized the Committee on Negro Organizations (CNO), which focused on black voter registration efforts. Flowers was instrumental in setting up an Arkansas State Conference of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branches in 1945 and he was an early president of the conference. As an attorney, Flowers handled a number of groundbreaking cases in Arkansas. In 1948, he accompanied Silas Hunt in helping to desegregate University of Arkansas Law School. Later in life, Flowers was the first black person to serve as a special judge in Jefferson County and he was appointed as an associate justice to the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Flowers died in 1990. Arkansas’s black lawyer’s society is named the W. Harold Flowers Law Society in his honor.
Jeffery Hawkins was born in Ashley County, Arkansas, in 1905. When Hawkins was eighteen he moved to Little Rock where he met his future wife Ora Smith. Hawkins was a longtime resident of Little Rock’s East End community, a majority black and impoverished neighborhood. In 1949, Hawkins formed the East End Civic League in to push for better jobs and public services. In 1964, he became one of the first black employees of the city of Little Rock when he was hired as a building inspector. Later he was hired by Pulaski County to serve as a deputy tax collector. In 1972, Hawkins ran for a seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives, losing to another African American candidate, Richard Mays, in the Democratic Party primary. In 1976, Hawkins was elected to the Pulaski County Quorum Court. He served for eighteen years, finally retiring from public life in 1994. Hawkins died in 2003.
Scipio Africanus Jones was born in Tulip, Arkansas, in 1868. He later moved to Little Rock where he attended Walden Seminary (later Philander Smith College) and Bethel Institute (later Shorter College) in North Little Rock. In 1887, Jones was denied admission to the University of Arkansas Law School on the grounds of race. Jones instead followed a more traditional route for blacks at the time, studying law under the mentorship of several lawyers. He passed the bar and was admitted to practice law in 1889. Jones’s most notorious case was his defense of twelve black men sentenced to death for their alleged role in the 1919 Elaine Massacre. The U.S. Supreme Court found that court errors did not allow the defendants to receive a fair trail. By 1925, all of the twelve men had been released. Jones died in 1943. The U.S. Post Office at 1700 Main Street in Little Rock was named after him in 2007.
Mahlon Adrian Martin was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1945. He graduated from Little Rock’s Horace Mann High School in 1963, after which he received an athletic scholarship to Grambling College in Louisiana. Martin returned to Little Rock after his grandmother fell ill and he enrolled at Philander Smith College. In 1967, he graduated with a B.A. in Business Administration. Martin later completed graduate coursework at Harvard and Cornell universities in public administration and executive management. He was one of the inaugural recruits for Little Rock’s “New Careers” program that provided on-the-job training to African Americans to prepare them for professional careers in city government. In 1976, Martin became Little Rock’s assistant city manager. In 1980, he was hired as the first black city director. He later served as the director of the Department of Finance and Administration under Governor Bill Clinton. In 1989, Martin was appointed director of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1989. He died in 1995. An apartment complex in Little Rock and Little Rock’s award for city employee of the year was named in his honor.
Richard L. Mays Sr. was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1943. He graduated from Horace Mann High School in 1961 and then enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. where he earned a B.A. in Political Science in 1965. Mays then enrolled at the University of Arkansas Law School, where he was the only black student in the program. He graduated in 1968 and took a job at the Justice Department. In 1969, Mays returned to Little Rock, where he took a job as a deputy prosecuting attorney. In 1972, he was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives, becoming one of the first four blacks elected to the Arkansas General Assembly in eighty years. In 1977, he founded his own law firm. During the gubernatorial administration of Bill Clinton, Mays was appointed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. He continues to practice law in Little Rock.
Isaiah S. McClinton was born in Faulkner County, Arkansas, in 1910. As a young adult he was allegedly kidnapped and forced to work on a plantation near Victoria in northeast Arkansas that was owned by Robert E. Lee Wilson. In 1929, McClinton escaped and moved to Little Rock, where he started a business that was a delivery service, janitorial service and moving company. In 1949, McClinton founded and became president of the Young Negro Democrats. The following year, the Democratic Party of Arkansas allowed blacks to become members for the first time. In 1952, McClinton was elected president of the Arkansas Negro Democrat Association. He held meetings in Little Rock and traveled the state advocating for black voting rights. Due to his political and organizing work, his life was threatened many times and McClinton was once attacked outside his home. McClinton died in 1991.
Olly Neal Jr. was born in the small, unincorporated, rural community of New Hope in Lee County, eleven miles west of Marianna, Arkansas, in 1941. After high school, he enrolled at LeMoyne–Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, and led the student sit-in movement in the city. Two years into his college education, Neal was drafted and served two years in Vietnam. After returning from Vietnam, he graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College with a B.Sc. in Chemistry. He then earned a J.D. from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School. Neal was Lee County Cooperative Clinic chief executive officer from 1970 to 1978. After several unsuccessful attempts to run for political office, in 1991 Neal was appointed as deputy prosecuting attorney for the Arkansas First District. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker later appointed him prosecuting attorney. Neal was subsequently elected as a circuit judge and beginning in 1996 he served a term on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
Lottie Lee Holt Shackelford was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1941. After graduating from Horace Mann High School she enrolled at Philander Smith College. She left Philander in 1963 when her father died. Shackelford later traveled with her husband to various U.S. Air Force bases. She returned to Philander in 1979 and earned a B.A. in Business Administration. Shackelford then worked for the Urban League of Greater Little Rock, the Economic Opportunity Agency of Pulaski County, the Opportunities Industrialization Center, and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. In 1974, she was unsuccessful in a bid for a seat on the Little Rock Board of Directors. Four years later, she was appointed to a vacant seat on the board, and in 1980 she was elected to that seat, becoming the first black candidate in Little Rock to win a majority of votes in a citywide election. She won reelection twice and in 1987 she was elected mayor, becoming Little Rock’s first female mayor. In the 1980s, Shackelford served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and co-chaired the Platform and Rules Committees. She also severed on President Bill Clinton’s transition team.
John Winfred Walker was born in Hope, Arkansas, in 1936. He graduated from Jack Yates High School in Houston, Texas, in 1954, and in 1958 he graduated from Arkansas AM&N College in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, with a B.A. in Sociology. In 1961, he received a M.Ed. from New York University. In 1964, he received a law degree from Yale University. Walker first worked as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. in New York. In 1965, he began general practice in Little Rock with an emphasis on civil rights. In 1968, he opened one of the first three racially integrated law firms in the South. In a long and distinguished career as a civil rights lawyer, Walker has received national awards from the National Bar Association, the American Trial Lawyers Association, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. and the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2010, he was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives.
Henry Wilkins III was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1930. After high school graduation he enrolled at AM&N College in Pine Bluff. In graduate school, Wilkins was a Ford Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and a Merrill Fellow at Atlanta University. Upon completion of his M.A. degree in 1959, he joined the faculty at AM&N College in the Political Science Department. In 1963, Wilkins served as secretary for the Pine Bluff chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1968, he was an alternate delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In 1969, he was the only black delegate elected to the Arkansas state constitutional convention. In 1972, Wilkins was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives, becoming one of the first four blacks elected to the Arkansas General Assembly in eighty years. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Holiday in the state. Wilkins died in 1991.
Thank you to our event sponsors for 2015: City of Little Rock, East Harding Construction, and Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Thank you to our student researcher for 2015: Brian Rodgers.
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