He started out a working-class kid from the English town of Rochdale, north of Manchester, the son of a construction worker.
Today, John A. Kirk is one of the foremost authorities on Arkansas history since World War II – specifically the history of the civil rights movement in Arkansas. He has written and edited three books on civil rights struggles in the state. Last year, he published “Martin Luther King Jr.: Profiles in Power” – named by the Huffington Post on MLK Day 2011 as one of the best 10 books on the civil rights leader.
And in 2010, Kirk became the ninth chair of UALR’s Department of History.
With a Ph.D. from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom, Kirk – a specialist in U.S. Civil Rights history – takes over a history department on a campus located just blocks from Little Rock Central High School and the site of the 1957 integration battle that made the city infamous.
With a hint of a regional English brogue, Kirk suggests that it may take an unbiased outsider to research and understand the history of race relations in Arkansas from the 1940s to the 1970s.
The crisis at Central High was the first test of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court order in Brown vs. the Board of Education to desegregate the nation’s public schools “with all deliberate speed.”
Facing strong political opposition from segregationists, then-Gov. Orval Faubus attempted to block enrollment of nine black students at Central, followed by then-President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to nationalize the National Guard and mobilize the 101st Airborne Division to protect the nine students and allow them to attend classes in the previously all-white school.
“Often when I mention that I’m researching civil rights history in Arkansas, people automatically hear, ‘Civil War history’,” he said. “And if they did hear ‘civil rights’ they often say, ‘I didn’t know there was a civil rights movement in Arkansas?’.”
Indeed there was, Kirk said, and his various books have proved it.
“There is more to civil rights history in Arkansas than 1957,” he said. “There is a long, rich, and complex history of African American activism stretching back into the 19th century.”
Kirk’s interest in American culture began in high school, when he prepared for his English A-Level exams needed to get into university. One class focused on American politics.
“My headmaster Mr. Clark was an American fanatic and he encouraged me to concentrate on American Studies,” Kirk said. A required study abroad program at the University of Nottingham brought him to Carroll College in Wisconsin – where he spent some time in Milwaukee – for six weeks and to Roosevelt College in downtown Chicago for an urban experience.
“I wrote my senior thesis on William Faulkner and race, graduating from Nottingham with honors in 1991,” he said.
But his interest in American civil rights blossomed during his graduate studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne where he eventually received his Ph.D. His mentors, Professors Tony Badger and Brian Ward, sparked his interest in race, the civil rights movement and progressive Southern governors.
Kirk’s professor purchased for the school copies of the Arkansas Gazette from the 1940s to the 1960s and a full set of the Little Rock African American newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, on microfilm. His research was focused. He traveled to Little Rock, spending the 1992-1993 school year delving into the UALR Archives, which houses the papers of Arkansas governors Carl Bailey, Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, Frank White, and Jim Guy Tucker.
The research Kirk conducted during his year in Little Rock resulted in his Ph.D. thesis, which he published as a book in 2002: “Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940-1970.”
During his year in the state he met UALR Archivist Linda Pine and drove with friends to Washington, D.C., to the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
“I had acquired an Arkansas Driver’s License and with that I was able to get into the White House open house that the Clinton’s had for Arkansans for the inauguration,” he said.
The license gave Kirk entree to another Arkansas governor – Faubus.
“Growing up in England, we never drove and I never learned to drive a car,” Kirk said. “But when I arrived in Little Rock, I knew I would have to learn or I wasn’t going to get anywhere.”
Within days of getting his license in 1992 and not really knowing much about cars and driving, Kirk took off to Conway, Ark., for an interview Faubus had agreed to give him.
“By the time I got to his house, one of the tires on my car was flat. I had no idea what to do,” Kirk said. “Faubus told me not to worry. He called a garage in town and asked them to send out a guy to fix the tire.”
Apparently, the fellow at the garage wasn’t too interested in sending a mechanic to make a house call. Faubus exploded: “‘This is Gov. Faubus and I want you to send someone out here right away’,” Kirk remembers. Before too long, someone from the garage showed up and fixed the flat.
“I got to see how the governor still wielded power of office,” Kirk joked.
Kirk said he is delighted to now be living and working in Little Rock.
“It is a good place to be,” he said, pointing to the University History Institute, the History department’s strong Public History M.A. program, and UALR’s new Institute on Race and Ethnicity, as well as the plethora of history museums and archives in town – the former Territorial Restoration, now the Historic Arkansas Museum; the Arkansas Studies Institute, the Arkansas History Commission, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Old State House Museum, the MacArthur Military Museum, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, and the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.
“There are great facilities and much potential support for historical research,” Kirk said. The University History Institute offers a subscription series with six talks a year by UALR faculty members that routinely draws 60 to 70 people for each event.
“I am so impressed with the level of community support there is for history.”
Dr. Deborah Baldwin, dean of UALR’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, said her college is fortunate to have a professor of Kirk’s caliber.
“His ability to insert his research interests into his teaching and the department’s community work is an advantage to everyone – students, colleagues, and museum patrons,” said Baldwin, who also serves as the associate provost of the Arkansas Studies Institute.