Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 8)

Old State House Museum - Monday, April 29, 2019

photo courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas StudiesBy 1952, Dwight David Eisenhower had led the largest array of armies that had ever been assembled in battle to vanquish the Nazi tyranny in Europe, led Allied forces in Europe as Supreme Commander in both war and peace, and served as President of Columbia University. He sought the Presidency in 1952, having popularity that transcended regional loyalties, even in the South. This allowed him to, running as a Republican, “crack” the Democratic “Solid South” by carrying Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. But not Arkansas. It did not prevent “Ike” from making an early fall visit to Arkansas both for his campaign and to campaign for Republican congressional candidates Jack Joyce and Alonzo Ross. While drawing large crowds at Adams Field and McArthur Park in Little Rock, it would be Eisenhower’s last trip to the state, and after he sent troops to Central High in 1957, the President’s popularity in the state suffered.

By 1960, the trend would be back toward the Democrats, though it would be a hard-fought contest. John F. Kennedy would come to Arkansas to campaign, along with his opponent, Richard Nixon, and he still faced the possibility of a third party challenge by Governor Orval Faubus, which never materialized. On September 19, 1960, Kennedy led a parade along Texarkana’s East Broad Street while on a campaign stop and helping to kick off the Four States Fair. On October 29, 1961, the President traveled to Arkansas to speak at a dedication ceremony at Old Fort Smith, then across the border into Oklahoma to dedicate a stretch of US Highway 103 near Big Cedar at the request of his friend, Senator Robert Kerr. Two years would pass before Arkansas would have another Presidential visit, as on October 3, 1963, at the invitation of the powerful Congressman Wilbur D. Mills, Kennedy arrived in the state to dedicate Greers Ferry Dam near Heber Springs. After speaking at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds where he praised Arkansas’ congressional delegation including Senators John McClellan and J. William Fulbright and Congressmen E.C. “Took” Gathings, Bill Trimble, Wilbur Mills and Oren Harris, he embarked on a helicopter ride to Cleburne County. The President took to the stage and addressed the audience at 11 a.m. on a very unusual Arkansas fall day with temperatures in the mid-70's, brilliant sun, and low humidity.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed Greers Ferry Dam, which is more than 1,700 feet long and towers 243 feet above the Little Red River. It cost $46.5 million to build and its purpose was flood control and hydroelectric power. Over the years the dam created one of the most popular recreational destinations in the country and a world-class fishery. Although the President did not know what the future held for his own life, he had a clear vision of the future that the dam would create. In his remarks, Kennedy stated, “Now the dam is built in 1963 and next spring will begin to get power. And the full impact of it will be felt by the sense of recreation and industry and all the rest in 5, 10, 15, or 20 years. That is a long view. It is a man's lifetime, and I would like to see us in this decade preparing as we must for all of the people who will come after us," the President continued. "I would like to see us do what we are doing here, do it in the Northwest, do it in the Midwest, do it in the East--set aside land for people so that as we get to become a more urban population, we will still have some place where people can drive and see what their country looks like. That is why this is an important work." Yet, in the midst of what appeared to the be a triumph of engineering and technology, But in a short seven weeks, the celebration and jubilation at Greers Ferry would turn into shock and mourning across the nation when on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was murdered by an assassin in Dallas.

Less than a year after this episode of triumph and tragedy, it was time to elect a President. During the time of the Greers Ferry visit, Kennedy was gearing up his bid for a second term. But in the fall of 1964, Lyndon Johnson of neighboring Texas, who had succeeded Kennedy, was seeking a full term of his own against Arizona’s Senator Barry Goldwater. LBJ’s support of civil rights legislation sparked a revolt of Southern Democrats who crossed over to support his opponent. In order to head off further defections, Johnson made several southern stops in his campaign, including Arkansas. On September 25, 1964, LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, spoke at an airport rally then proceeded downtown to dedicate John F. Kennedy Square in front of the federal courthouse. In his remarks, he sought to project confidence after a year of tragedy: “On that September day four years ago when John Fitzgerald Kennedy came here to Texarkana and spoke to you, he had this to say: ‘Lyndon Johnson and I seek to represent the United States in a very difficult and a very dangerous period. We do not run for the presidency promising that if we are elected life will be easier. But we do promise that if we are elected this country will begin to move again. This country will move forward. This country will stand strong. This country’s brightest days will be ahead.” The same sentiments were felt by the crowd that gathered at Greers Ferry less than a year earlier.