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Sid McMath
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Sid McMath

Sidney Sanders McMath (June 14, 1912October 4, 2003) was a U.S. Marine hero and progressive Democratic reform Governor of the State of Arkansas (1949-1953), United States, who, in defiance of his state's political establishment, championed rapid extension of rural electric power, massive highway and school construction, the building of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, repeal of the poll tax, open and honest elections and broad expansion of opportunity for black citizens in the decade following World War II. He remained loyal to President Harry S. Truman during the "Dixiecrat" rebellion of 1948, campaigning throughout the South for Truman's re-election. As a former governor, McMath led the opposition to segregationist Governor Orval Faubus following the 1957 Little Rock school crisis. He later became one of the nation's foremost trial advocates, representing thousands of injured persons in precedent-setting cases and mentoring several generations of young attorneys.

Sidney 'Sid' McMath was born in a dog-trot log cabin on the old McMath home place near Magnolia, Columbia County, Arkansas, on Flag Day, Friday, June 14, 1912, the son of Hal Pierce and Nettie Belle Sanders McMath. His paternal grandfather, Columbia County Sheriff Sidney Smith McMath, grand nephew of his Alamo namesake, had himself been killed in the line of duty the previous year leaving a pensionless widow and 8 children, Hal being the eldest. After years of wrangling horses and bad-luck wildcatting in the Southwest Arkansas oil fields, Hal McMath moved his family by wagon to Hot Springs in June of 1922. There, he sold the last of his horses and took a job as a barber. Nettie went to work as a manicurist and for the Malco theatre as a ticket vendor. Sidney and his sister, Edyth, attended Hot Springs public schools, where the boy excelled in boxing and drama and became an Eagle Scout, while shining shoes and hawking newspapers to supplement the family's meagre income. He attended Henderson State College and the University of Arkansas, where he was elected president of the student body. He was graduated from the University's School of Law in 1936.

Table of contents
1 War service
2 Early career in politics
3 Governor of Arkansas
4 Defeat for third term and U.S. Senate
5 Trial law practice
6 Later life
7 Historical evaluation
8 Bold positions & political consequences
9 Death
10 Further Reading

War service

McMath received an ROTC commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps upon graduation from college. During World War II, he served with the Marines, to which he had voluntarily returned in 1940. He was assigned to train officer candidates at Quantico, Virginia. He was promoted to captain, then to major, and in 1942 he was ordered to American Samoa in command of the combined forces jungle warfare school. From late 1942 to early 1944, he led the 3rd Marine Regiment in battle as operations officer and acting CO in the Pacific Theatre, including New Georgia, Vella Lavella, Guadalcanal and Bougainville, during which he directed the Battle of Piva Forks. He received a battlefield promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded the Silver Star and Legion of Merit. Shortly afterward, he was stricken with malaria and filariasis and hospitalized for 3 months in San Diego, California. He then served in the Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C planning an amphibious invasion of the Japanese home islands. Lt. Col. McMath was discharged from active duty in December, 1945. In the mid-1960's, he served two brief tours in Vietnam with the 3d Marine Division as a reserve Major General.

Early career in politics

After the war, McMath and other veterans became banded together to fight corruption in the Hot Springs city government which was dominated by illegal gambling interests. Hot Springs at the time was a national gambling mecca frequented by organized crime figures from Chicago, New York City and other metropolitan areas. Casinos flourished, and hotels advertised the availability of prostitutes. Mobsters maintained political control by purchasing and holding hundreds of poll tax receipts, often in the names of deceased or fictitious persons, which would be used to cast multiple votes in different precincts. Law enforcement officers were on the payroll of the local "organization" headed by long-serving Mayor Leo McLaughlin. A former sheriff who attempted to have the state's anti-gambling laws enforced was murdered in 1937. No one was ever charged with the killing. McMath headed a "GI Ticket", which, except for McMath himself, were defeated in the Democratic primary election. However, the others resigned from the party and ran again as independents in the 1946 general election after McMath persuaded a federal judge to toss out the fraudulent poll tax receipts. Most won their offices.

McMath served as prosecuting attorney for the 18th Judicial District (Garland and Montgomery Counties) starting in 1947. The newly installed GI officials, led by McMath, shut down the casinos and other rackets and a grand jury indicted a number of owners, pitchmen and politicians, including the former mayor. With the development of Las Vegas in the years afterward, Hot Springs lost its premier gaming status. A modest casino revival during the administration of Governor Orval Faubus (1955-1967) was ended in 1967 by Republican Governor Winthrop Rockefeller (1967-1971).

Governor of Arkansas

After success as a prosecutor, McMath was elected Governor of Arkansas in 1948 after a close election. His Democratic run-off opponent, a former attorney general, accused him of "selling out to the Negro vote." He entered office January 11, 1949 as the nation's youngest governor. He was reelected in 1950 by a wide margin over his immediate predecessor, former governor Ben Laney, who attacked McMath for supporting Truman in 1948, when Laney and a number of other southern governors had left the Democratic party over its civil rights plank. The walk-outs switched their allegiance to Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who ran as a "Dixiecrat". McMath wrested control of the Arkansas party from Laney. He campaigned vigorously across the region and was credited by Truman with helping to save most of the South for the Democratic column, providing the electoral margin for a stunning upset victory. The two developed a lifelong friendship. McMath was mentioned early as a possible vice-presidential choice in 1952.

McMath's administration focused on infrastructure improvements, including the extensive paving of farm-to-market and primary roads "to get Arkansas out of the mud and the dust", rural electrification, and the construction of a medical center in the capital city. McMath supported anti-lynching statutes and appointed African-Americans to state boards for the first time. His administration consolidated hundreds of small school districts and built the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (financed with a two-cent tax on cigarettes--a significant innovation). McMath worked tirelessly, often clandestinely, with Dr. Lawerence Davis, Sr. to save the state's all-black college, AM&N. McMath also reformed the state's mental health system and increased the minimum wage.

McMath was elected by other governors of petroleum producing states to chair the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission which improved pricing structures and broadened federal support for exploration. He was elected chairman of the Southern Governor's Conference. McMath invited muckraking Arkansas Gazette editor Harry Ashmore to speak to the governors. His topic was the waste of scarce public funds in maintaining separate school systems for white and black pupils.

Defeat for third term and U.S. Senate

McMath ran afoul of the energy and other extractionist sectors who had long dominated Arkansas politics but toward whom McMath was noncompliant. Arkansas Power and Light Company, headed by utility magnate C. Hamilton Moses, wealthy bankers and bond dealers, piney woods timber companies, the Murphy Oil conglomerate and its retainers, and old-family planters in the Mississippi Delta all feared McMath's progressive politics would increase labor costs and break up the sharecropping farm economy. These interests put aside their own differences to work in concert to defeat McMath's bid for a third term in the 1952 election. McMath ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1954 and again for Governor in 1962, with largely the same opposition united against him--although, by 1962, Moses had been displaced by bond and gas tycoon W.R. "Witt" Stephens as principal kingmaker. McMath's voting base among the working class was neutralized by the $1 poll tax (roughly $25 in 2004 dollars), which effectively disenfranchised thousands of those voters. McMath strove in vain to repeal the tax, which remained a relic of Jim Crow until the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1964.

Trial law practice

Following his 1952 defeat, McMath returned to the practice of law and over the next half-century became one of the leading consumer trial attorneys in the United States. His cases set a broad range of legal precedents, including the first million-dollar personal injury verdict in a U.S. District Court (for an injured barge crewman, in 1968), a woman's right to recover for the loss of her husband's consortium (an element of damage previously limited to men), manufacturers' responsibility for harm caused by defective products and negligent advertising encouraging their misuse, the chemical industry's liability for crop and environmental damage, drug companies' responsibility for fatal vaccine reactions in children, gun dealers' fault for the negligent sale of firearms, and the right of workers to sue third-party suppliers for job injuries. He and his partner Henry Woods, who had served as his gubernatorial chief of staff and later was appointed U.S. District Judge, became nationally known for their effective use of powerful demonstrative evidence such as detailed models of accident scenes and cut-away charts of the human anatomy. In 1976, he was elected president of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, an exclusive group of 500 of the world's most distinguished barristers, taking office February 22, 1977 at the group's annual convention in Nairobi, Kenya.

McMath wrote a memoir entitled Promises Kept (University of Arkansas Press, 2003, ISBN 1-55728-754-6) detailing his rural upbringing, public schooling, family tragedies--including the untimely death of his first wife, Elaine, during the war and the shooting to death of his father, who had become an enraged alcoholic, by his second wife, Anne, in 1947--as well as his years of military service and as governor. The Arkansas Historical Society awarded the autobiography its 2003 John G. Ragsdale Prize as the year's most outstanding historical work. An appendix discusses McMath's more interesting and significant cases from the layman's point of view. These include Franco v. Bunyard, which held a gun shop liable for selling a pistol to escaped convicts who kidnapped and murdered store clerks, Fitzsimmons v. General Motors, which pioneered the rule of consumer induced misuse through seductive advertising, Brinnegar v. San Ore Construction Co., a landmark admiralty case and a number of multi-million dollar recoveries for farmers whose crops were destroyed by defective pesticides and poultry effluent. In 1991, McMath's firm proposed suit against tobacco firms to recover Medicaid funds spent caring for smokers. Rejected by Arkansas authorities, who had close ties to tobacco lobbyists and law firms, the idea was used by Florida, Mississippi and Minnesota, who won billion dollar settlements. Texas recovered $18 billion in a Texarkana federal court claim which Arkansas officials refused to join. Arkansas finally concluded a $60 million per year tag-along settlement in 1999.

Later life

Sid McMath remained active into his 90's, continuing to speak at Arkansas schools and events, particularly at his first alma mater, Henderson State University, whose faculty established a history and political science lecture series in his honor, and at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to whose scholarship fund he was a substantial contributor. He also supported local civic organizations, including the Union Rescue Mission, the Scottish Rite Masons (who awarded him its highest honor of the Grand Cross), and the Lions World Services for the Blind, whose training school in Little Rock he completed in 1999 following the loss of his vision due to macular degeneration. A video commercial featuring McMath has been aired nationally by the school in recent years. McMath was elected president of the Third Marine Division Association and in 1994 he narrated "The Battle of Bauxite," a television documentary recounting the story of the miners who excavated thousands of tons of aluminum ore from pits near Bauxite, Arkansas which was used for military aircraft production during World War II. Aluminum workers and their families were among his most ardent supporters during his many campaigns. McMath taught a senior Bible study class for 26 years at Little Rock's Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church.

Historical evaluation

In a 1999 opinion poll of some political science professors McMath placed fourth on a list of top Arkansas Governors of the 20th century. However, in a December 2003 forum of historians and journalists sponsored by the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, there was a consensus that McMath's historic highway and school building programs, his early commitment to civil rights, particularly his support of President Harry S. Truman in the 1948 presidential election against Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, the abolition of the so called "white primary" in Arkansas (1949), the opening of the state's medical and law schools to African-Americans (Fall 1948, but only after Governor-elect McMath's express approval), his championship of total rural electrification and his relentless opposition to segregationist governor Orval Faubus, a former McMath ally (Faubus had served as McMath's Director of Highways), during the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation turmoil and throughout Faubus' subsequent 9 years in office, could well result in his elevation by future historians to first place--not only among Arkansas governors, but among all Southern governors of the time.

"Sid McMath might have laid legitimate claim to have been the most courageous and far-sighted Southern leader of the 20th century," wrote Arkansas Times columnist Ernest Dumas on October 10, 2003. "What separated McMath from every other leader of that grim time in the South was courage, the moral as well as physical variety."

Concluded Dumas: "[T]he real test of courage was how he handled the defining issue of the century for every Southern political leader. [I]n a field crowded by frenzied men trying to outdo each other in their zeal to keep the Negro in his place, McMath deplored race-baiting. ... Had one--just one!--major elected Southern official broken ranks on civil rights, early on, before the racist opposition began to metastasize, history might have been so different. The tragedy of Faubus and Fulbright was that they lacked the courage to do so. The tragedy of Sid McMath was that corporate vengeance denied him the opportunity to do what they would not."

George Arnold, Northwest Arkansas opinion editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, observed in a March 2004 column that, "If [McMath] had been able to take Arkansas further down the path to modernization and racial harmony, Arkansas history would have been quite different. Arkansas paid a big price when the public utilities muscled him out of office. [It is] still paying."

Harry Ashmore, whose Arkansas Gazette editorials during the Little Rock school crisis won for himself and the paper dual Pulitzer Prizes, wrote in an April 1977 book review that, "McMath's ... return to active politics in the Faubus era was pro bono, an act of integrity undertaken when he knew the chances of winning were slight and the personal cost would be high. [O]ne who did not always see eye to eye with him could say of Sid McMath: 'He was there when the people needed him and didn't know it. He is a far better man than any of those who came out ahead of him at the polls.'"

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in an October 7, 2003 editorial ("Greatness Passed This Way") written by editorial page editor Paul Greenberg, himself a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, lauded McMath as, "[T]he greatest [man] of his era--and of a few others."

"Sid McMath," the newspaper said, "never believed in testing the political winds before speak[ing]out for principle. He remained a true, old-fashioned Harry Truman, Scoop Jackson Democrat as that breed gradually disappeared. When others in the party argued that America could safely co-exist with evil, Sid McMath knew better--and said so. He also knew there are far worse things than losing elections--like winning them for the wrong reasons. ... He would not accept the expansion of evil in the world, no matter how inevitable that was said to be by dintinguished statesmen at the time. Instead he would defy it--and urge others to join him."

The belatedness of McMath's recognition as one of the South's great political leaders has undoubtedly been due to lingering detraction from an ersatz "highway scandal" (see below) contrived by opponents to defeat his 1952 re-election bid as well as his steadfast support of a tough anti-communist foreign policy throughout the Cold War, including the Vietnam War (in which he served two short reserve tours), which McMath, while condemning its micromanagement by the Johnson and Nixon administrations, saw as a critical holding action necessary to give the emerging nations of the Asian rim time to build market economies and some form of democracy. In Promises Kept he suggests that this goal was in fact achieved, in spite of the 1975 North Vietnamese victory over the south, which McMath saw as pyrrhic in light of the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire and the emergence of the rest of Southeast Asia as a free-trading powerhouse. Nevertheless, these views, presented in scores of speeches to school, civic and veterans' groups, were bitterly resented by many of McMath's erstwhile supporters, particularly academics, editorial writers and liberal activists (including some members of his own law firm, who left on this account), for whom an aggressive Cold War stance became heresy during the late 1960's onward--indeed, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In spite of his towering credentials as a social and economic progressive, many of these persons never forgave McMath for his anti-communist, national defense positions, mentioning him, if at all, in detraction or with condescension and omitting him altogether from lists of historical notables. The former governor's stances on these questions (and the anathema with which he came to be held by liberal elites) contrasted sharply with those of popular Arkansas Senator William Fulbright, who, as chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vigorously opposed a hardline policy toward the Soviet Union generally and the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam in particular.

McMath's grit (some would say stubbornness) in the face of sustained unpopularity and virtually certain defeat at the polls, when compromise with his opponents might have assured his survival "to fight another day," has caused some commentators to question his residual commitment to a political career rather than to a valiant but naive Arthurian chivalry--or perhaps a fatalistic resignation. However, one participant at a Southern Arkansas University forum on McMath held November 3, 2003 in Magnolia, Arkansas put it another way: "When Sid McMath stood for civil rights in the 1940s and 1950's he stood virtually alone among the South's political leaders, most of whom were waving the bloody shirt. By the 1970s every Southern pol was supporting full citizenship for African-Americans. It was by then politically correct. But for McMath, it took unprecedented courage. And in fact it later cost him whatever chance he had to salvage his political career. He certainly deserves a chapter in the next Profiles in Courage. He was a true hero, not only to the South, but also to the Nation. He ranks with John Peter Altgeld [of Illinois], James Stephen Hogg [of Texas] and Robert M. La Follette [of Wisconsin] as the greatest of the American state governors. His stands on principle undoubtedly cost him a genuine chance to contend for the presidency. His life can be summed up in one word: Valor."

Bold positions & political consequences

The former governor's standing has been greatly enhanced by contemporary re-examinations of his administration's seemingly herculean accomplishments, given the poverty and parsimony of the era. These included the use of an unprecedentedly bold bond issue to secure the paving of more hard surface roads than all previous administrations combined (and more than those paved by any other Southern state during the period), taxing cigarettes to build a first-class medical college, a policy of openness and inclusion toward African-Americans generally and a concerted public school improvement program, including a reduction of the number of school districts from 1,753 to 425--a measure begun by others but heartily endorsed by McMath in the 1948 general election and rigorously enforced by his administration after passage under the leadership of Dr. A.B. Bonds, Jr. one of the country's top young educators and a native Arkansan whom McMath persuaded to return to the state as director of the Department of Education. Most significant was McMath's politically fatal but ultimately successful war against Mid South Utilities, the dominant political force in state politics at the time. This monopoly operated as Arkansas Power and Light Co., or "AP&L". The corporation and its affiliates opposed extension of Rural Electrification Administration (REA)-generated electrical power to rural areas, which its directors and chief shareholders saw as a rich territory for AP&L's own eventual expansion. Fewer than half of Arkansas farm homes had electricity in 1948. REA-affiliated cooperatives, however, were able to open service to those areas by 1956 as the result of Co-op enabling legislation, including authorization for the building of steam generating plants, which was enacted by Congress in large part at McMath's behest.

Mid South led the combination that defeated McMath in his 1952 re-election bid and in his 1954 effort to unseat then-Senator John L. McClellan. McClellan, who maintained a lucrative law practice with Mid South's chairman C. Hamilton Moses, referred to the REA co-ops as "communistic" during the campaign, which was conducted at the height of the "red-scare" attendant upon assertions by the late U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis) of communist influence in the Truman administration. McClellan was the ranking member of the Army-McCarthy subcommittee whose hearings were televised live during the lead-up to the election. Liberal senators Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn), Stuart Symington (D-Mo) and others, as well as Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Tex), signed newspaper ads supporting McClellan. McClellan narrowly defeated McMath in an election now recognized to have been marked by widespread fraud. For example, record numbers of black voters, for whom McMath had only five years before secured the right to vote in Democratic primaries, were trucked to the polls (usually plantation stores or gin offices) in Eastern Arkansas by McClellan supporters among the planters of that region who held their workers' poll tax receipts and recorded how they voted. McMath lost some of those precincts by better than 9 to 1 margins.

AP&L's (and McClellan's) enmity toward McMath did not end with his defeat in the senatorial election. Nine years later, when President John F. Kennedy suggested McMath's possible appointment as a replacement Secretary of the Interior, McClellan quickly used his special relationship with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a former attorney to the Senate investigations committee, of which McClellan had become chairman in 1955, to nip the idea in the bud. Some of McMath's most stalwart support was from organized labor, whose abuses, particularly by national leaders of the Teamsters, were a focus of the committee's investigations in the late 1950's. No Arkansas union members or officials, however, figured prominently in these probes.

Allegations of corruption in McMath's highway department, brought by a grand jury dominated by utility minions, were eventually proven unfounded in three separate proceedings. Two grand juries returned no indictments, but a third on which several Mid South managers served, returned three. All of the accused were acquitted. There was no allegation of personal wrongdoing by McMath. However, the assertions against his administration dogged him for the rest of his life and Promises Kept includes a chapter in which McMath refutes the charges and chastises his opponents for abusing the judicial system to fabricate them. The former governor's October 22, 1954 testimony before a Congressional committee investigating undue monopoly influence over the distribution of the nation's electrical power, in which he recounts Mid South-AP&L's manipulation of the Arkansas "Highway Audit Commission" and the grand jury process, warrants inclusion in any anthology of significant state papers of the 20th Century. The truthfulness of McMath's testimony describing in detail this use of raw corporate power to defeat reform and destroy the reformer was never disputed and no rebuttal was offered. See Further Reading, below.

McMath opposed the "Southern Manifesto," a March 1956 pronouncement of 19 U.S. Senators, including Fulbright and McClellan, and 81 Congressmen from former Confederate states decrying the Supreme Court's 1954 desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education as: "[C]ontrary to the Constitution ... creating chaos and confusion ... destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races ... plant[ing] hatred and suspicion [and an] explosive and dangerous condition [which is being] inflamed by outside meddlers ..." The document encouraged public officials to use "all lawful means" to thwart the enforcement of the ruling. According to McMath at the time, "This only serves to encourage demagogues to set fires of racial hatred that could consume our people."

It was this Manifesto, McMath laments in Promises Kept, that gave Arkansas' Governor Orval Faubus the impetus and political cover to call out the National Guard in September 1957 to bar the entry of nine black students to Little Rock Central High School. "Emboldened by this support," McMath wrote, "Faubus played his racial card." McMath strenuously opposed this action as well as Faubus' closure of the public schools the following year rather than obey federal court desegregation orders.

McMath counseled President Dwight D. Eisenhower against the use of regular U.S. Army troops, suggesting instead that the U.S. Marshall's service be used to enforce the court's orders. However, this advice was not accepted and paratroopers from the elite 101st Airborne Division were sent to Little Rock after Eisenhower nationalized the Guard and disbanded it. The soldiers forced the admission of "The Little Rock Nine", as the black students became known, but the troops' presence, as McMath foretold, stirred states-rights sentiment to a frenzy, made Faubus a hero to a majority of Arkansas voters, and ensured his re-election to a record six terms in office--each time, ironically, with an increasing percentage of the African-American vote, of which he garnered more than 80% in the 1964 Democratic primary.

McMath became the acknowledged leader of the Faubus opposition and supported insurgent gubernatorial candidates in the 1958 and 1960 Democratic primaries. His law firm was often referred to as resembling "a South American government in exile." McMath, himself, finally ran against Faubus in 1962 under the slogan, "Let's get Arkansas Moving Again." He placed second in a field of five, splitting the black vote with Faubus, while running on a platform of fresh business investment (many firms had fled the state during the years of racial strife or avoided it altogether), stricter regulation of gas and electric utility pricing, and the charging of interest on state revenues, which were held in private banks interest free but which the banks then loaned out at standard commercial rates--a windfall bankers justified as a "fee" for keeping the state's funds. Faubus narrowly avoided a runoff when Marvin Melton, a Jonesboro banker widely seen as the second strongest challenger after McMath, was persuaded by Faubus operatives (who suggested that state funds could be withdrawn from his bank and questions raised about his selling of allegedly inflated insurance company stock) to quit the race.

The 1962 election cemented the ascendancy of "Witt" Stephens, Faubus' primary financial backer, as the state's undisputed kingmaker. Stephens' banks held the lion's share of state funds. His Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company charged Arkansas homeowners (whom Stephens contemptuously referred to as "the biscuit cookers") the highest residential rates per cubic foot in the Southwest, thanks to Faubus' compliant Public Service Commission. Additionally, Stephens' brokerage firm handled more than 90% of all state bond issues during the 12-year Faubus reign. The Stephens family investment empire today is valued by analysts at more than one hundred billion dollars. "Stephens, Inc," as it bills itself, is the largest off-Wall Street securities trading firm in the United States. A sign of its political clout--and wariness--is the firm's portfolio of newspaper and other communication holdings, the second largest in Arkansas after the Palmer-Hussman chain, which operates the only statewide newspaper and a spawn of local dailies. Between them, the two interests control more than two-thirds of the state's print and broadcast media.

Many of McMath's staunchest supporters turned out in 1966 for Winthrop Rockefeller in his successful bid to become the state's first GOP governor since Reconstruction. Rockefeller soundly defeated the Democratic nominee, an avowed segregationist supreme court justice, Jim Johnson.

The 1966 election was the first full general election cycle since the repeal of the poll tax and passage of the Voting Rights Act. These developments accelerated an already growing shift in influence over black voters from white bosses toward African-American clergy, due in part to the gradual displacement of plantation labor by mechanized agriculture, swelling the unemployment and welfare rolls. Rockefeller's campaign took full advantage of this dynamic by wooing hundreds of black ministers with church improvement contributions and cash get-out-the-vote payments, setting a precedent for future candidates of both parties and considerably raising the cost of electioneering. Some ministers, themselves locally elected officials, hire out as "consultants" to congressional and gubernatorial candidates, often renting their church buildings and vehicles to a campaign and hiring congregants as canvassers and drivers. Early-voting laws now permit even Sunday balloting, facilitating the busing of entire congregations to polling places after services. Funding this cornucopia of "walking around money", which can exceed $1 million per election for prevailing statewide candidates, has substantially increased the power of the state's corporate vested interests, whose large bundled and PAC (Political Action Committee) contributions, many from lawyers, managers and agents of out-of-state parents and affiliates, and from international labor unions, are critical in meeting such demanding overhead. Bundling has become even more important in view of individual donation limits imposed following Watergate and subequent scandals. When rising front-end charges for television advertising (essential for reaching white voters but to which African-American voters are largely unresponsive) are added, Arkansas campaign expenditures, per voter, are among the nation's highest.

The Rockefeller administration resumed and expanded the post-war reforms begun by McMath, particularly with regard to civil rights, which, borne on a national tide of rejection of bigotry as public policy, resulted not merely in blacks ceasing to be excluded from public services but able, in significant part, to control their allocation through the franchise--usually by block voting for Democratic candidates, but always as a credible threat against any racist isolate. Rather than altering the status quo with some 18% to 22% of the vote statewide (40% to 60% in some counties), blacks have been absorbed into it through disproportionate hiring as lower level public employees and as underwage "associates" of mega-retailing amoebae, poultry processing emporia, tertiary health and casualty insurers, the ubiquitous utility monopolies and other concerns buoyed by the state's exquisitely parochial, right-to-work economy.

Bereft of Rockefeller's eleemosynary capacity or McMath's disdain for barony, later administrations have comfortably reconciled themselves to the exigencies of this quaint realpolitik. Although Faubus died a pariah in 1994, the example of his agility in placating a credulous electorate, now multiracial, with a veneer of populism and dashes of largesse, while simultaneously accommodating the forces of extraction--whom an intrepid young Sid McMath illustriously, if momentarily, challenged half-a-century ago--remains the guidepost for political survival in 21st Century Arkansas.

Sid McMath served a bare six years in public office, only four as governor. He left behind no powerful political organization or claque of partisans. Gambling in Hot Springs, though subdued from its brazen heydey, returned intermittetently for another 20 years. Every Arkansas home eventually would have been wired for electricity, and the Interstate highway system, with three sections and numerous feeder routes, was completed through Arkansas by 1980. National repeal of the poll tax was achieved by Constitutional Amendment. The Civil Rights acts of the 1960's and changing cultural attitudes ultimately ameliorated, but did not end, discrimination against African-Americans. More problematical is whether President Truman would have won re-election had the Laney forces prevailed and Arkansas and the majority of the remaining Southern and Border states gone for the Dixiecrat Thurmond. The support of McMath and a handful of other stalwarts was almost certainly determinative. And although McMath was not successful in his decade-long contest with Faubus, his vigorous, reasoned opposition during those years of upheaval may well have foreclosed a more violent outcome. It can be said with near certainty that without McMath's foresight and perseverence, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences would not be the world renowned institution that it is today.

Whatever fame McMath once had fled well before his death. In recent years he sometimes had to spell his name for bank tellers, reservations clerks, state employees--once even for a newspaper reporter. He accumulated no great wealth, owning at the end a modestly upscale condominium and a small residual interest in his law firm. The latter, though no longer occupying the field alone, remains the state's premier personal injury practice. Ironically, many of its major cases are referred by competitors, scores of whom appear amongst the swarms of television, billboard and yellowpage advertisements directed at "victims" and the "hurt" now common throughout America. A key to McMath's ultimate legacy may be found in the memory of those who knew him, if only for a time. "You always left Sid McMath with the feeling, not that you had been with someone important, but that you were important, that your life had been uplifted," Arkansas Circuit Judge John Norman Harkey has said of McMath. "Sid took your cares away. He refreshed your spirit. No matter how down you were before, he made you want to charge back into the battle, but with a smile, knowing, by gosh, we can really win this thing. And we did win." But, of course, McMath did not always win. A stock remark he would offer following a loss was: "The bastards know they've been in a fight. You have to let them know you're not afraid to leave your blood on the courtroom floor. I've left a lot of blood on the courtroom floor."

There was also the matter of honor, the upholding of which by a public officer amidst great tumult and peril (and against the most persuasive and enticing machiavellian temptation to do otherwise), and at the risk not only of one's career and personal fortune but, in the darkest days, of one's life and those of his loved ones--may prove to be McMath's singular legacy. Universally recognized as a lawyer of unquestioned integrity, McMath, once a noted collegiate thespian, enjoyed reciting lines addressing that virtue from plays in which he had acted (or aspired to act) in his youth. He was high-school cast in The Valiant and played Hamlet and Romeo at university, but among his favorites, which he had not played but often wished he had done, was the lead in Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, a work he knew practically by heart, particularly the scene at the very end when the grenadier is dying alone except for his beloved Roxanne, to whom he confides that his paucity of means and acclaim, and his unconsummated love--all are nothing beside his intact honor, "and that is ... my white plume."


Sidney Sanders McMath died at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas on Saturday, October 4, 2003. He had been released from hospital the previous Wednesday after being treated for severe dehydration, malnourishment and an irregular heartbeat. He is survived by his third wife, Betty Dorch Russell McMath, three sons: Sandy, Phillip and Bruce McMath; two daughters, Melissa Hatfield and Patricia Bueter; ten grandchildren and one great grandchild. His first wife and childhood sweetheart, Elaine Braughton McMath, died at Quantico, Virginia in 1942. His second wife, of 49 years, Anne Phillips McMath, died at Little Rock in 1994.

McMath was given a full military funeral by a U.S. Marine Corps Honor Guard. He lay in state for a day in the Capitol rotunda, following which his closed, flag-draped coffin was transported by motorcade to Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock for services attended by an estimated 1,000 worshipers. The ceremony included hymns by the combined Methodist and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Vespers choirs. Following the firing of the bullet by the Honor Guard, the former governor was interred at Pinecrest Memorial Cemetery in Saline County, Arkansas, a few yards from a survey marker denoting the geographical center of the state.

Sid McMath Avenue in Little Rock is named for him and the Little Rock Public Library recently dedicated a new branch in his honor. There is no plaque or other memorial in Hot Springs mentioning McMath or the GI reform movement he led.

Further Reading

For detailed accounts of McMath's campaigns and administration, as well as historical perspectives of his impact on regional and national politics, see "A president from Arkansas" by Ernest Dumas in the November 14, 2003 edition of Arkansas Times magazine at arktimes.com; Professor Jim Lester's biography, A Man for Arkansas: Sid McMath and the Southern Reform Tradition, ISBN 0194546-11-2 (Rose, 1976); Professor V.O. Key's classic Southern Politics (Alfred Knopf Co., 1949 and various subsequent editions), and materials cited in those publications.

McMath's own account, Promises Kept, ISBN 1-55728-754-6 (University of Arkansas Press, 2003) contains a wealth of primary source material including, in addition to the author's personal recollections, photocopies of correspondence exchanged between him and President Truman and others. Citations in the Appendix refer readers interested in the details of some of McMath's more significant cases to the appropriate state and federal appellate court reporters, as well as to various law reviews and journals where the outcomes are discussed. However, due to their sheer number, many cases are not cited and some citations contain typographical errors. Online and back-issue index searches of the ATLA Law Reporter (formerly the NACCA Law Journal), Matthew Bender's Art of Advocacy series (particularly "The Art of Direct Examination"), the Arkansas Law Review, Inside Litigation, Westlaw and Lexis would assist the reader in developing a more complete list of McMath's cases, their correct citations, and commentary.

The late U.S. District Judge Henry Woods, McMath's partner of 27 years, was a prolific legal writer and his articles on their cases occasionally appeared in the Arkansas Law Review. Woods' treatise, Comparative Fault (Lawyers Publishing Co., 3d Ed. 1996) is the hornbook authority on that area of injury law. His papers, including personal letters and memoranda on a variety of matters dating from McMath's governorship through their years of practice together, were donated in 1998 to the special collections section of the University of Arkansas library in Fayetteville.

For an intimate family portrait and a behind-the-scenes narrative, see First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times, by Anne McMath, ISBN 0-87483-091-5 (August House, 1989). A Ribbon and a Star (Henry Holt, Inc., 1945) is an eye-witness memoir of the Bougainville campaign by one of McMath's staff officers, Capt. John Monks, Jr., written immediately after the engagement. Monks later became a noted playwright and film producer. For a colorful local history of Hot Springs, Arkansas during the McLaughlin period, including the mayor's 1947 indictment and trial, see Leo & Verne: The Spa's Heyday, by Orval Allbritton, ISBN 0929604-87 (Garland County Historical Society, 2003).

McMath's testimony before the U.S. Senate Anti-Monopoly Subcommitee on October 22, 1954 dealing with the Highway Audit Commission and subsequent grand jury charges and trials may be found in the Congressional Record for that date. It is also replicated at the Sid McMath web site at www.mcmathlaw.com. The McMath-Faubus relationship is noted in Faubus: Life and Times of an American Prodigal, by Roy Reed, ISBN 1557284571 (University of Arkansas Press, 1997).

Articles and notes in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly which mention McMath or his administration are found in Volumes 6, 9, 11, 12, 15, 21, 25, 26, 30, 37, 39, 40, 43, 44, 47, 48, 49, 51, 53, 54, 57, and 59 of that publication. Shortly after his first inauguration, McMath discussed his political thinking and legislative goals with disarming candor in a widely syndicated interview with Joseph Driscoll, national correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Disptach. See "Sidney McMath, New Governor of Arkansas, Wants Civil Rights Protected by States," on page 1-B of that paper's Sunday, January 23, 1949 edition.

Certain of the former governor's personal and public papers, together with several oversized volumes of news cuttings, a 30-minute June 1962 campaign film, "A Man for Arkansas," shot by 4-time Academy Award winning documentary producer Charles Guggenheim, and a 60-minute June 2000 AETN television interview with McMath by former governor David Pryor, as moderator, are held by the historical records section of the University of Arkansas Library in Fayetteville. The Henderson State University Library in Arkadelphia retains others. Photographs, films, flags, uniforms, campaign ribbons, medals and citations from McMath's Marine Corps service are kept at the Arkansas Military Museum and the Old State House Museum, both in Little Rock. Readers are also referred to the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri and the U.S. Marine Corps archives in Quantico, Virginia, St. Louis, Missouri and Washington, D.C.

Preceded by :
Benjamin Travis Laney
Governor of Arkansas
Succeeded by:
Francis Cherry