Brooks Hays: 1898-1981
Vol. 4, No. 4, 1982, pp. 17-18
My grandfather was a Republican. To some this may not sound like an arresting statement, but to one born in 1898 in the impregnable Democratic South, and destined to spend a lifetime in politics, the fact was of profound significance.
I made my first race for governor of Arkansas in 1928, when Civil War memories were still emotion-charged factors in politics. I had not realized what a handicap I was under until I arrived at Mammoth Spring for a speaking engagement one hot August afternoon, and was greeted by a worried chairman: “Brooks, our opposition is claiming that your grandfather was a Republican! It’s not true, is it?” I admitted it was true, and in my speech I met the difficulty head-on: “My friends, I hear there is a rumor going around that my grandfather was a Republican and a carpetbagger. He was indeed a Republican. And it is unfortunately a fact that he and Grandmother Hays did not get to Arkansas till 1879. They came here seeking a better opportunity in life; and I am sure that when they packed their few belongings to journey halfway across the continent in response to the warm welcome that Arkansas promised to those who would come here to settle and help build the state, they never dreamed that fifty years later it would be said that their grandson should not hold public office because his grandfather did not reach the state till 1879!” Thereafter the Hays family’s Pennsylvania background was no issue.
My mother’s father, Dr. William Butler, a native of west Tennessee, was so opposed to slavery and secession that he took the hard and unpopular course of changing his party. And I am no prouder of my great-great-grandfather, who apparently fought in Washington’s army, than I am of this simple country doctor and Baptist preacher who acted in accordance with the dictates of his conscience. In 1873 Dr. Butler moved into Arkansas with his wife, my grandmother, and settled in Logan County. Some ten years later he unsuccessfully ran for the Arkansas state senate.
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During the period of my grandfather’s moderate political activity in the 1880’s, when he ran for the state senate, there was not much interest in politics. People were occupied with routine tasks and political decisions did not appear important. There was no serious challenge to the state Democratic party, partly because the opposition had bungled its chance to produce an attractive alternative to Democratic rule. Still, that Republican opposition did not deserve the imprecations heaped upon it. The outstanding Reconstruction governor Isaac Murphy had, as a representative from Madison County, opposed secession, and was responsible for some splendid progressive measures, some of which were beneficial to both the white and black races. (Madison County produced another governor, Orval E. Faubus, nearly a hundred years later.) Public schools received the first serious attention of state political leaders and, if race feeling had not obstructed progress, the Republicans might have laid the basis for a long political tenure. But power brought a form of intoxication. Their excesses in expenditures and the downright corruption of some officials, coupled with failure to plan a constructive participation by the emancipated Negroes in political life, led to disfavor and a long political drought.
There is no sadder chapter in the history of Southern politics than the cruel and highly effective measures adopted by the white majority around the turn of the century to close the door to the Negro’s political participation. The principal mechanisms adopted for this purpose were the poll tax, a complicated ballot, and the white primary. The Republican and Populist opposition to these measures was feeble or altogether lacking, so the Democrats were gleeful. They were not to atone for this mistreatment of the black community for another half century. True, there were sensitive white leaders who knew that what was happening was wrong, but there were not enough of them to provide resistance.
State government under the Democrats, like the federal government under the Republicans, was a sort of noblesse oblige–mild aids to farm production, but never bearing the impress of radical change in marketing, credit, or land tenure policies that were essential to any substantial improvement of conditions.
And organized religion. as I have intimated, was too absorbed in unrelated and irrelevant questions to help the distraught lower classes–small farmer and town laborer. The plight of the black people did not appear to trouble the white Christian conscience very much. “The panic” (mid-nineties word for depression) therefore caused much suffering. Radical Populists offered nostrums of a questionable kind. The historic social ethics of the churches could have helped, but, again, their intellectual energies were being dissipated in meaningless dissertations. A debate between the favorite orators of the Baptist and Methodist churches and those of the new and burgeoning Disciples of Christ would always draw a crowd. The subjects most often adopted were: “Is baptism essential to salvation?”; “Is foot-washing a biblically required ordinance of the Church?”; “Is security of the saints taught in the New Testament?”; “Can a saved person fall from grace?” The “doctrine of hell” was a common subject of discussions, and grave decisions were known to rest on individual beliefs on the subjects. The following somewhat familiar story originated in this period. An
engaged daughter said, “But, Mother, I can’t marry George; he doesn’t believe there’s a hell.”
“Well,” said Mama, “You go ahead and marry him, and between the two of us, we’ll show him that there is.”
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The word welfare was not in the political vocabulary of the 1880’s. Family responsibility was, however, a basic virtue among the frontiersmen, and neighborliness was often expressed in volunteer nursing for the sick or needy and in providing food for them. Quilting and barn raisings were not only a part of the community’s sense of concern for its members but provided outlets for the festive spirit that craved a temporary escape from individual labors in favor of group assemblying.
Only the poor families had to have outside help when serious misfortunes struck. There were simple patterns of social security that the bread winners were expected to follow. The maiden aunts, for example, never secure in the modern sense. rarely lacked a place to live. My Grandfather Butler doubtless gave his sister Tabitha every evidence that she was as much a part of the family circle as when he and she were growing up together in Tennessee. And Aunt Bitha carried her part of the routine work of the household.
The new opportunities for women in our century are certainly a vast improvement over this type of security, but the affection which the Aunt Bithas received in the earlier period was a compensating factor. In turn she exuded a love and devotion for the family that adopted her.
There is an obscure passage in Albert Beveridge’s volume on Abraham Lincoln’s youth that celebrates this aspect of pioneer life. Tom Lincoln was able to provide only a crude shelter for his family in the Indiana wilderness, and when Nancy Hanks was stricken, Abe and his sister nursed her with only the-help that their nearest neighbor, a kind-hearted woman, could give them. She trudged through the snow two miles daily on her missions of mercy. It was frontier life at its best.
Today, such sacrifices are not required, but it seems to me that society has yet to extol properly the compassion that is reflected in the elaborate and professional aids which every level of government provides for ailing people. The Indiana wilderness has vanished, but doubtless there are people in trouble today in the same spot where, Abe Lincoln tried to make his mother comfortable in he’ last illness. Today the visiting nurses and welfare workers have become symbols of a corporate compassion, just as the Lincoln neighbor symbolized an individual kindness upon which the Nineteenth Century society had to depend.
Sorrow had often struck the Ellsworth community, the well-to-do and the poor alike. Eight of my mother’s sisters and brothers died in infancy or early childhood, most of them victims of epidemics. Diphtheria was the chief enemy. Mother’s story of the passing of her younger brother and of her twin sisters when they were just six years old strongly affected my feelings about the desperate health needs of rural Arkansas. It also gave me an insight into the power of religious comfort in the presence of death. The Bible may be, for some, a mere talisman, but its truths became a buttress for me. I was old enough to appreciate the comforting elements in these truths long before I discovered that the Bible is also a prod to give comfort as well as receive it. The Old Testament was as comforting as the New. The poetry and philosophic depths of both buoyed me in the sorrow which my mother’s story of her family’s suffering induced.
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Thus the forming of a matrix of my political, social, and religious philosophy began in western Arkansas nearly a century ago. An observer of the Washington political scene during my service there viewed with mild criticism some provincial aspects of my philosophy, but he credited “Mr. Hays” with advancing far beyond the culture of the rural South “which nurtured him.” This was in the context of early civil rights struggles, and my part in those struggles did not obscure the deep sentiments that I feel for the people and the places which are identified with my life and career. It was obvious that my opinions on the Little Rock school desegregation crisis of 1957-1958 were “an advance” over the conventional views of my constituents, but just as obvious, I hope, is my appreciation of the genuinely admirable things about the ways of life of Arkansas village and farm people.
However, I must concede that the rural South has lagged in erecting adequate educational standards, that the rural South has held on to a dubious theology, and that the rural South has a paucity of practices calculated to improve the total society; in short, that there is in certain areas a shocking mediocrity. My hope for the South is based not on blindness to these facts, but on an underlying faith in the South’s actual and potential goodness–in its aspirations, as distinguished from its achievements, and in the toughness of mind as well as of body of the sons of the soil and their women folks.
I trust that my story reflects an authentic hope for triumph by them over adversity; also that their respect for moral and legal authority, entertained in the face of many affronts by political establishments to their human dignity and pride, will be maintained.
“Laying By” is an occasional feature of Southern Changes which commemorates special lives and labors. Laying by signals no shuffling off of memory nor casting off of purpose. In the South it means that time, late in summer, when folk pause from their work, consider what has gone before, and anticipate a harvest.
This article is adapted from Mr. Hays’s autobiography Politics Is My Parish, published in 1981 by the Louisiana State University Press, and reprinted here with permission.