In light of the events of the past 72 hours across the country, I decided to resend this Letter from Hot Springs I wrote in 2016 while I was living in Arkansas writing The Vapors. This was written during a national debate over the display of the confederate flag, and before the election of Donald Trump. The musings on the confederacy and the flag debate seem almost quaint compared with the uprising that is currently happening in response to the most recent murders of unarmed black people at the hands of police. But the story of the little-known riot in Hot Springs in 1970 in response to a flag burning and shooting seemed like an important thing to revisit, particularly for readers of this newsletter who enjoy Hot Springs history and may not know that the city was once saw its own share of the kind of conflict now raging across America.
One update on this story is that the city of Hot Springs did, eventually, remove the confederate flag from the plaza where the statue of the confederate soldier stands. The statue, sadly, remains.
May 16, 1970 was a warm summer Saturday night in Hot Springs and about two hundred people, mostly black, were having a block party on the parking lot behind the police station on Pleasant Street. Someone hooked up a jukebox. There was a grill cooking up hot dogs. Little kids chased each other, young people danced, older folks sat and told stories. The party was the culmination of a year's worth of difficult but effective work on behalf of an organization called the Council for the Liberation of Blacks.
CLOB was started by a young man named James Paschal, one of only two black teachers at the newly-integrated Hot Springs High School. Paschal had brought together many local groups concerned with poverty and civil rights and organized protests in support of more jobs for the city's black community. What started as as series of community conversations gradually grew into the street protests typical of the civil rights era, but not at all typical in Hot Springs. While much of the country had experienced sit-ins, marches, picket lines and other demonstrations for civil rights throughout the 1950s and 60s, Hot Springs hadn't had a single demonstration until Paschal and CLOB picketed the JJ Newberry store to demand they hire black employees in 1969. That's over a year after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. That's six whole years after Bull Connor turned water hoses on peaceful marchers in Birmingham, Alabama. Much of Hot Springs had probably made it to 1969 feeling like they had ducked the civil rights unrest that the rest of America was experiencing.
Hot Springs at that time had a reputation of being an unusually cosmopolitan and liberal community for the deep south. The city was segregated to be sure - black residents lived much of their lives "between Gulpha and Church streets," and most of the conventions of Jim Crow were observed in the rest of the town. Black patrons of the Malco movie theater entered in the rear and sat in the balcony. Casinos and hotels would employ black people but only as porters or housekeepers or dishwashers. But the casino owners who controlled Hot Springs, men like Dane Harris who owned The Vapors, believed it was important to make sure that the black side of town kept a piece of all the action. That meant that when the cabal that controlled the gambling business and local government sat down to decide who got to operate a casino in Hot Springs, they made sure there were black-run clubs on the Malvern Avenue side of town. That also meant that when Dane Harris brought a bag of cash to the Jaycee club to open up a swimming pool, he brought along an extra bag of cash to give to the Webb Center on the black side of town to make sure they had a swimming pool that was just as good.
While hotels in Hot Springs like the Arlington and Majestic were hosting luminaries like Babe Ruth or John Wayne, the National Baptist Hotel and Bathhouse, owned by the African American National Baptist Convention, was one of the finest black-owned hotels in America and hosted such notable guests as Count Basie and Joe Louis. The general manager of the Baptist, Alroy Puckett, was a leader in the black community in Hot Springs. He was also partners with Dane Harris. The two teamed up to make sure the casino money was spread around and everyone had what they needed. This was an important piece of the business plan for the owners of the illegal gambling clubs - it was how they kept everyone in Hot Springs voting for the pro-gambling political machine. It's why so many otherwise liberal voters in Hot Springs kept sending the racist segregationist Orval Faubus back to the governor's mansion for six terms; he supported gambling in Hot Springs. His opponents vowed to shut it down.
By 1966 the mojo had worn off. Winthrop Rockefeller, a yankee carpetbagger who plays a bit of a villain in my book for his role in shutting down gambling in Hot Springs, was elected as the first Republican governor of Arkansas in over a hundred years. Despite the fact that fewer than 11% of Arkansans identified as Republicans, the standoff at Little Rock Central High School spurred many black voters and liberal white democrats in Arkansas to team up with Republicans to find an anti-segregation candidate who could win. The wealthy Rockefeller from New York was their man. The price for respect and dignity for black Arkansans was a costly one for black residents in Hot Springs. Rockefeller's election broke the back of the gambling syndicate. By 1969 the casinos were closed, the building projects were left mostly unfinished, unemployment shot up, and those swimming pools Dane Harris had paid for every year were drained. Folks on both sides of town had the economic rug pulled right out from beneath them, but it was particularly bad on the black side of town. What few jobs remained for young people more often than not went to white people. Six out of ten black high school graduates were leaving Hot Springs in search of better jobs than what they could find in town.
This was the scene in Hot Springs when Paschal started organizing CLOB to address black unemployment. Surprisingly, they found a receptive audience. Their initial protests lead to meetings with local downtown merchants which then lead to agreements to hire more blacks for front-of-the-house jobs. When CLOB addressed the city council, the council responded by greenlighting CLOB to do a study and issue recommendations to the city for improving employment opportunities for black residents. When CLOB called a mass meeting at the Hot Springs convention center, it was attended by over 800 people, both black and white. At the 1969 Miss Arkansas Pageant, which was always held in Hot Springs, 200 CLOB members rallied outside protesting the lack of any black contestants. Paschal told the newspaper "if they don't have any black contestants next year, they better find somewhere else to have it." In 1970 the Miss Arkansas Pageant had its first-ever black contestant, Velma Ann Thomas. She was crowned Miss Hot Springs, naturally.
These successes were part of what CLOB was celebrating that Saturday night in the Police Department parking lot. Around 11pm the music came to a stop. The party was interrupted by a glow from overhead. There on the side of West Mountain stood the unmistakable visage of a cross, the flames dripping down from it like water.
Drive through downtown Hot Springs on any Saturday morning today and you'll run up on the arresting site of a caravan of hayseeds parading around Landmark Plaza carrying Confederate flags. The loosely-organized rallies have been held nearly every week since South Carolina chose to take the Confederate flag down from their state capitol after white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine people in a Charleston AME church. Roof wanted to spark a race war because he believed that "blacks were taking over the whole world." Roof did start a war, but not the one he imagined. The fight over the Confederate flag in South Carolina was the first volley in what would swell into a national debate about symbols and, by extension, institutions of racism, slavery and white supremacy. In Hot Springs the defense of the Confederate flag was swift. About 24 hours after South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse, a rally of Confederate flag-supporters materialized at Landmark Plaza for their first rally.
The significance of Landmark Plaza is that it belongs to the United Daughters of the Confederacy and is the site of a monument honoring Confederate soldiers. The monument was erected in 1934 on what was then public land at the request of a woman who had moved to Hot Springs from Alabama and who couldn't understand why the city didn't have any Confederate monuments like the hundreds that had been erected all across her home state. She raised the money to pay for the statue and convinced the city to pass a resolution permitting its placement at the intersections of Ouachita and Central Avenues. By 1953 the city decided to wash their hands of the monument and turned the deed for the property over to the UDC. At no time has it’s presence in Hot Springs, on private land owned by the UDC, ever been in doubt. Still the monument inspires a weekly physical defense from a band of passionate and dedicated supporters, marching around repeating the mantra “history not hate.”
But how much does the Confederate battle flag really represent an important part of Arkansas history? Arkansas itself wasn't an important player in the Civil War. In fact, when first asked to join the Confederacy, Arkansas voted to remain with the Union. It wasn't until the war began and Lincoln asked Arkansas to send troops to South Carolina to defend the Union that Arkansas voted for secession. It's arguable that it was a reluctance to join the war at all that lead Arkansas to secede. Support for the war was low, and grew lower as the war ravaged the state, with the Confederacy losing nearly every battle fought on Arkansas soil.
The Confederacy was a spectacular failure. It cost almost a half million southerners their lives. It left the south in anarchic shambles. It was undeniably a terrible mistake for the South to leave the Union and defend the wretched practice of human slavery. Yet that cause continues to be celebrated by down-and-out Southerners over a century later. In fact, there are more Civil War monuments in America than those honoring any other notable events in American history. The South has erected more monuments in celebration of their defeat than any other civilization in the world.
The Confederate flag isn't about a proud history or a southern heritage. It has always represented one thing and one thing only - solidarity among white people in defense of white supremacy. It's the reason that Dylan Roof loved the Confederate flag. It's the reason the KKK and racist skinheads wear the Confederate flag. It's the reason that the flag is always hoisted highest on the pole in reaction to the amplification of black voices, like CLOB in Hot Springs or, perhaps, like the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States.
Symbols of racism are less powerful than the institutional ways that racism pervades our lives - through de facto segregation of our communities and schools, the discriminate ways that sentences are handed down in the criminal justice system, access to health care, the gerrymandering of political districts, the list goes on and on - but the symbols have power in how they remind us of these institutions and glorify them as the natural order of things. Attempting to remove these symbols has power, too, in how it brings the racist ideas behind them out into the light of day for all the world to see.
I saw this argument on full display on a recent trip to New Orleans, Louisiana where late last year the city council voted 6-1 to remove four public monuments; statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard, and a monument commemorating the Crescent City White League, a violent racist militia that took over the city of New Orleans in 1874 by force in protest of the interracial state government and police force. That monument went up in 1891, and was bad enough on its own, but in 1932 white people must have worried that the subtlety of the monument's real message might be lost, so they installed a plaque that read:
McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored). United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.
The Monumental Task Committee, an organization that has formed to protect these four monuments in New Orleans, has filed in court for an injunction to stop the city from removing them, and they've managed to delay it this far. An organization called Take Em Down NOLA has responded by threatening to pull down the Andrew Jackson statue in the French Quarter if the other monuments aren't brought down. While I was in New Orleans, a rally of over 200 people assembled to try to pull the statue down, but were met with a phalanx of police officers, counter-protesters, and former KKK leader and current candidate for the US Senate David Duke.
Take Em Down NOLA's leader, Quess Moore, says that this is partly why they are targeting monuments of racism, to bring out the racists. "Because that’s what they are: dog whistles to these people's ancestors. It’s the same toxic vibe you see at a Trump rally—that’s not a coincidence. When he says, ‘Make America great again,’ that’s the same dog whistle.”
People argue that these symbols are an important part of southern history, and to remove them would be whitewashing that history. But flags and monuments aren’t how we learn history, they are how we celebrate and honor the things we are proudest of, the things that represent who we are as a people. We learn history in books, and I truly hope that the history books will teach the horrors of the Civil War or the Crescent City White League’s terrorism for many generations to come. But to wear the Confederate flag or to fly it above your city, that’s a different thing altogether. That’s making a statement about who you are - that you’re in opposition to black people gaining another single inch, perhaps even pushing them back an inch or two. That's the legacy of the Civil War and the Jim Crow era. That's the defining characteristic of the sentimental south.
People will also argue that bringing down flags and statues doesn’t do anything to solve real problems. While it is true that bringing down symbols of racism doesn’t solve every problem that racism created, it isn’t true that bringing them down solves no problem at all. Even if the only problem it solves is the problem of celebrating slavery, racist terror and the denigration of human life, wouldn’t that be enough? Isn’t that worth the trouble? Some problems are so massive that the solutions seem daunting, perhaps even to those who desperately need them solved. But this problem has a solution that is so simple - just take down the flag - that the refusal to do it is an act of hostility, and the anger that refusal engenders can burn white hot.
Shortly after John Paschal and the members of CLOB saw the burning cross that Saturday night in Hot Springs, and before they had any opportunity to react to it one way or another, a car with four young white men in it drove by the block party and opened fire. Thankfully nobody was hit, but the gunfire inspired the crowd to respond. A number of them headed down Malvern Avenue, smashing windows out of white-owned businesses and ransacking them. When all was said and done, one black citizen was dead, shot by the owner of a liquor store who claimed he was trying to rob the store during the fracas. Two days later, police arrested John Paschal on charges they saw him throw a brick through the window of Cooley’s Grocery, and four white teenagers for burning the cross on West Mountain. The teenagers had expressed hope that the cross burning would help them get a chapter of the KKK up and running in Hot Springs. It didn’t. They spent four months in jail. CLOB continued their work for another year before disbanding.
In 1970 Hot Springs High School had only been fully integrated for two years. In the following decades, white families would build new communities outside of the school district to avoid having to send their kids to school with black students. The result was a slow and painful return to segregation. Today Hot Springs High School is a much smaller school, and majority non-white. Last semester an incoming white freshman showed up for football practice in his grandfather’s truck. The truck had a sticker on the back of a Confederate flag. Some of the boy’s black teammates told him it was disrespectful and he should take it down. His mother intervened and argued with the boys. Soon other students and other parents got involved, and a brawl broke out. The story made national news and, as they are wont to do, brought the defenders of the Confederate flag out en masse. They paraded their vehicles in front of Hot Springs High School festooned in large Confederate flags and bright yellow Don’t Tread on Me flags. They told any reporter with a camera or a pen that they, like the freshman football player and his family, were simply proud of their southern heritage. The sticker on the grandfather's truck that started it all, underneath the proud Confederate flag, the symbol of their rich and noble heritage as white southerners, read the words “Kiss My Rebel Ass.”
After Winthrop Rockefeller was elected governor in 1966 he declared an end to the white supremacy of the “old South.”
“The old South is dead. This will infuriate the true believers in white supremacy. It will launch into orbits of indignation self-styled lovers of the South, politicians who wave the Confederate flag and blink back sentimental tears at the sounds of “Dixie.” These people would keep our star hitched to a cotton wagon forever, if they got a free ride up front. But that old South—of moonshine and magnolias, and one man’s supremacy over another—is passing into disrepute, a condition imposed on ideas and institutions headed for the scrapheap of history.”
This November marks fifty years since his election. His party has nominated Donald Trump for president on a platform that consists of little else but supremacy of one man over another. Arkansas is likely to vote for Trump over the state's former First Lady by a large margin. And almost every Saturday in downtown Hot Springs, at the intersection of Ouachita and Central, you can drive by a smattering of embittered, miserable racists, standing proudly on that scrapheap, waving their little flags hither and yon.
Away down south in Dixie,