By Ryan Nix
To say the least, Arkansas has a complicated, fraught history with race relations, particularly when it comes to African Americans. Black people have lived in Arkansas since slavery was introduced in the 18th century, and have had an indelible impact on the state’s culture and history. Despite this, for much of Arkansas’ history black politicians were an uncommon sight, even after they were freed following the Civil War. But the tide has turned. According to the Arkansas Black Mayors Association, there currently are 55 African American mayors leading cities and towns across Arkansas, many of whom are the first people of color to hold their city’s highest office.
While this is a recent trend, it’s not the first time Arkansas has witnessed a large cohort of black people hold public office. In 1873, many African Americans successfully ran for county and municipal offices, particularly in the Delta. Twenty black men served in the Arkansas General Assembly, most of whom had been enslaved only a few years prior.
This began to change when Reconstruction ended. Once Jim Crow laws, poll taxes and “whites-only” primaries were implemented, nearly all the political gains made by African Americans were erased and black politicians were swept from all levels of public office. From the 1890s to 1973, not a single black lawmaker served in the Arkansas state legislature.
One visible example of the current trend towards more diverse governance is Little Rock’s current mayor, Frank Scott. While Scott was widely reported as Little Rock’s first black mayor, it isn’t quite true. Little Rock actually had two African American mayors in the 1980s, Charles Bussey Jr. and Lottie Shackelford.
From 1957 to 1994, mayors were appointed from the city’s board of directors. This previous municipal system was actually in place largely due to the attempts at desegregation implemented by mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann, who was elected by a coalition of black voters and trade unionists. Disliking Mann’s friendliness toward unionized labor, a group of business leaders pushed an initiative to change Little Rock from alderman-mayor system to a city manager/board of director municipality. Overestimating his popularity, Mann agreed and was swept out of office by Little Rock’s then-sizeable segregationist voting bloc.
While Little Rock is still governed by a board of trustees and a city manager (Bruce Moore, incidentally also a person of color), it did resume directly electing mayors in 1994. In 2018, Scott became the first elected black mayor of Little Rock. According to Scott, he didn’t run to be Little Rock’s first elected African American mayor, but instead “aimed to bridge the city’s racial, income and geographic divisions.”
This sentiment was echoed by many of the black mayors across Arkansas with many stressing the importance of having representation from the diverse voices around the state. “Of Arkansas’ 500 municipalities, 55 are black. That’s not only the most we’ve ever had, it’s also the most we’ve seen presiding over first-class cities,” says Julian Lott, mayor of Camden and current president of the Arkansas Black Mayors Association.
Lott sees civic involvement as a responsibility for all people, regardless of race or class. “Everyone should get involved at some level. People often get quite animated about what’s happening in Washington D.C., but what your mayor and city council do will affect you a whole lot faster than what the president’s doing at 600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” he says.
Lott is the first black mayor of Camden, but he didn’t necessarily see his race as motivation to run. “I didn’t run to be Camden’s first black mayor. I ran because I believed I could bring some things to the table and make good, important changes,” says Lott. “During my campaign, I said ‘I’m not running to make history, I’m running to make a difference.’
”This was a common thread among the mayors we interviewed. Most had sat on city councils or been heavily involved in the public life of their towns before they decided to run for mayor. George McGill, mayor of Fort Smith, spent three terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives where he was instrumental in separating the holidays celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.
McGill ran for mayor in 2018, hoping to help create a Fort Smith its people can be proud of. “I think my election shows that Fort Smith is open to change, and that the people of Fort Smith will elect those who will serve them best, regardless of their color,” McGill says.
Many other newly-elected mayors have helped lead their cities to great heights, including West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon.
“In my first year as mayor, we’ve had over half a billion dollars worth of infrastructure and construction improvements in West Memphis,” McClendon says.
But it’s not been a smooth ride. “When I won, some in the white community were upset and said they’d sell their homes and leave the community,” says McClendon, adding, “As soon as they started seeing the good things happening in the community everyone jumped on board. I think now everyone is coming together, because they see it’s going to take all of us to make changes that will move West Memphis forward.”
A few other black mayors have experienced degrees of pushback from more regressive elements in their towns. Upon his election in Rosston, a small town in southwest Arkansas, Mayor Samuel Quarles’ office was vandalized. “The whole office was trashed, and our computer systems were sabotaged. It was a rough start as mayor,” Quarles says.
When asked why he thought the vandalism took place, he simply answered, “Hatred.” Quarles believes that sabotage demonstrates some degree of racism in the community, but only among a small minority. “I won by 68 percent, so there’s a lot of people in my corner, Caucasian and African American.”
Compounding his difficult start, Quarles’ wife and father passed away last year and his home also burned down last December, the cause of which is yet unknown. When asked if he believed it was racially-motivated arson, he replied, “No. Even if it was, I wouldn’t speculate. The timing did raise a few red flags, but there’s no proof of arson, and I’m cautious about accusing anybody when it was most likely just an accident.”
While many of those elected in 2018 are the first African Americans in Arkansas to hold their city’s mayoral office, Cedric Williams is actually Forrest City’s third black mayor in a row. Forrest City is named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate General and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. While recognizing this unfortunate history, Williams says, “No matter who the city is named after, it’s our city now. The people of Forrest City can and are making it into the best place it can be,” Williams says. “That’s why my campaign slogan was ‘One Forrest City, One Community, One Vision.’”
Regardless of differing personal experiences, every mayor interviewed emphasized the importance of diversity in a representative government. In particular, many focused on the success of the meritocratic nature of city politics. “People are more open to embracing changes now,” says Mayor McClendon. “All people, regardless of color or gender can make a difference in this state. I think that all the black mayors we’ve elected are making a positive difference. Give people the opportunity, they’ll see the change.”
Others pointed to the inspiration for aspiration that having a racially-mixed municipal leadership can engender. Veronica Smith-Creer, mayor of El Dorado, noted that outside of affecting positive change in El Dorado, one of her favorite parts of being mayor was her visibility within her community.
“It’s so rewarding to visit schools or go to church and have children there see what’s possible for them, that the mayor can be black or white, male or female,” says Smith-Creer. Camden’s
Lott agrees, saying “Our children need to see diversity in their leadership, because that helps them see outside the box and believe they can do great things.”
Smith-Creer is also encouraged by the increased ability for people of color to win public office in cities and counties. “I think that shows a huge, positive cultural shift, one that the majority has embraced,” she says.
Quarles agrees, saying “Not many years ago black Americans probably weren’t even allowed on city councils. Now we’re winning mayoral races around the state, and I think having a wider range of voices will bring a little more honesty and unity into municipal governance.”
Additionally, some pointed to the policy benefits of representation, particularly in a racially-diverse state like Arkansas. “Diversity brings different trains of thought. We have all kinds of people in Forrest City, all with different needs,” says Williams. “A good government needs to be diverse, so it can adequately represent those different ideas and voices in the community.”
Lott believes that inclusivity is necessary to build and rebuild communities, not only in Arkansas, but across the nation. “All people should get involved with their cities. All of us have a role to play in making our communities better,” Lott says. “Remember: You’re either at the table, or you’re on the menu.”