Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor: Desegregation an ‘Unwilling Invasion’

In thesis, Pryor argued Democratic dominance in Arkansas caused by reaction to federal desegregation efforts

Mark Pryor
Mark Pryor / AP
October 21, 2014

Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor argued that the federal government’s desegregation of Arkansas’s largest public school in 1957 was an "unwilling invasion" that took "a local problem out of the local authorities’ hands" and led to deep suspicions of democracy in the state, according to a copy of his college thesis obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Written in 1985, the 30-page paper—which also suggested that the state’s Democratic Party was hindering economic progress, and attributed policies such as welfare and the Equal Rights Amendment to "wild-eyed liberals"—could add to Pryor’s difficulties as he fights to protect his seat from Republican challenger Rep. Tom Cotton.

College writings have become a campaign issue in the Arkansas Senate race, with the Pryor campaign and national Democrats attacking Cotton for his student newspaper columns and senior thesis.

The paper is housed at the University of Arkansas special collections library, which suspended the Washington Free Beacon's library privileges earlier this year. Pryor, who graduated from the university in 1985, wrote that the thesis was influenced by his work on his father David Pryor’s 1984 senatorial campaign.

In the essay, Pryor argued that the Democratic Party’s dominance in the state stemmed from public’s need for protection against external threats, comparing this to the Russian people backing Tsarist and Communist governments.

"Arkansas has been invaded unwillingly twice. Once in reality and once figuratively," wrote Pryor.

"The Civil War provided the real invasion. The figurative invasion took place in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School. That event took a local problem out of the local authorities’ hands. The federal government had again forced its will on the people of Arkansas."

In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending the state’s segregated all-white Central High School in Little Rock. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by ordering the U.S. Army to escort the students into the school and federalized the Arkansas National Guard.

While Pryor wrote that the Arkansas governor’s refusal to integrate the school caused an "embarrassing escapade that marred our character and reputation greatly," he also argued that the "state had suffered enough" from the federal desegregation effort and "so it formed an iron-clad Democratic machine and would accept no challenge to it."

While the Democratic Party held a monopoly over Arkansas politics for nearly a century, momentum has shifted to the GOP in recent years. Today, Pryor is the last remaining Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation.

Pryor received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas in 1985 and a law degree in 1988. He wrote in the paper that "most of the thoughts in this work are the products of my growing up in a political family and my experiences in [my father’s] 1984 senate race."

He added that he was "unable to find much information on Arkansas politics" and thanked the late University of Arkansas professor and Clinton confidante Diane Blair for her "crucial guidance" on the work.

The paper touches on some sensitive issues, including the Equal Rights Amendment and the state’s support for a segregationist presidential candidate in 1968.

"Many Arkansans—Democrats and not-Democrats—criticize the national party’s insistence on ideas such as Affirmative Action, Welfare, and the Equal Rights Amendment," wrote Pryor.

"But, as the state Democrats are obviously thrilled with, the average voter is also sophisticated enough not to give all Democrats equal judgment," he continued. "The Democratic Party of Arkansas is as conservative as its constituency. Wild-eyed liberals just don’t last very long."

He also argued that Arkansans "used a keen sense of intuition" in 1968 when they voted for the unusual trio of Democrat Bill Fulbright for senator, Republican Winthrop Rockefeller for governor, and Democratic segregationist George Wallace for president.

Pryor wrote that Wallace "wasn’t a Republican, but he wasn’t quite as far off base as [liberal Democratic candidate] Hubert Humphrey, either. He was a segregationist. Maybe this was the last yelp of the old segregated South."

"Each man has something different to offer the state," wrote Pryor. "Pragmatic Arkansas chose an unlikely combination, but that is the stuff democracy is made of."

While the Pryor campaign has criticized Cotton for claiming in his own college thesis that national politicians tend to be ambitious and highly intelligent, the senator made a similar argument in his paper.

"Arkansas political tradition promotes the most ambitious and realistic politicians to become Democrats," Pryor wrote. "This is because the greatest chances for success were within the Democratic Party."

The Democrats were able to maintain their supremacy, he argued, due in part to Arkansans "lack of interest in change" and "unwillingness to try something new."

Pryor also compared the state Democratic Party to a baseball team, asserting that it has "an excellent farm program with its droves and droves of local politicians."

"Only the better politicians make it to the next plateau. And only the best make it to the Major League (congressional or statewide office)."

Although Pryor was a beneficiary of Arkansas’ one-time powerful Democratic dynasty, his paper does not portray the party in the most flattering light.

He favorably cited an argument that the Arkansas Democratic Party could be considered an "undemocratic government" that "discourages new ideas and new approaches to problems."

"The hallmark of Arkansas democracy is control," he wrote. "The Democrats have been able to control the state politically. If the state changed substantially, that is to say developed economically, the party might lose some of its precious control."

"In other words, politicians may actually fear change, and, hence, progress. They might like being the big fish in the small pond," he added. "After all, it is human nature to want to stay on the top of the heap. It would probably even go against human nature to knowingly unleash these forces which might bring about your very downfall."

The Cotton campaign has tried to tie Pryor to President Obama’s policies, but Pryor’s essay reflects a pragmatic view of politics that seems to be based more on party loyalty than shared ideology.

"It could be said that politicians in Arkansas are not Democrats because of ideas, but because of practicality and even habit," Pryor wrote.

The senator also analyzed his father David Pryor’s successful 1984 senatorial reelection campaign, which he now appears to be using as a point-by-point model for his current run.

"When [the Republican] spoke of supply-side economics and a new industrial policy, [David Pryor] answered with three easily understandable words: ‘Arkansas Comes First,’" wrote Pryor. "His theme of Arkansas coming first had a tremendous appeal to the people of the state. It touched a nerve deep within the voting psyche."

"‘Arkansas Comes First’ hit the nail on the head," Pryor continued. "Pryor used the oldest tricks in the Democratic election book. He localized the significance of the election."

Pryor has adopted "Arkansas Comes First" as his own campaign slogan, and has emphasized local issues throughout the race.

His paper concluded with some advice for Republicans on how to compete with the once-unbeatable Democratic Party in Arkansas.

"[Republicans] must find better candidates," Pryor argued. "They must prove to the state that it should convert. The Democrats won’t roll over easily. They have changed with the times and continued to triumph in November."

The Democrats’ major advantage, according to Pryor, was the "looseness of the organization. This allows tremendous flexibility and adaptability to every nook and cranny in the state."

"It is now up to the Republicans to continue to chisel away at Democratic dominance," he concluded. "In doing so, they’ll have to chisel away tradition."

Neither the Pryor campaign nor the University of Arkansas responded to a request for comment.

Update: Following publication of this story, Pryor's deputy campaign manager Erik Dorey sent the following comment: "Nobody has done more than Mark to honor the heroism of the Little Rock Nine and their courageous stand for integration, or to spotlight this embarrassing episode in our state's history. Junk tabloids can manipulate Mark's words, but they can't change the fact that he personally secured the funding for the National Park Service museum at Central High School."

Mark Pryor's full thesis can be read below:

Mark Pryor College Thesis by Washington Free Beacon

Published under: Mark Pryor , Tom Cotton