He was the personification of the emerging politics of progressive moderation in the South in the 1960s following the bitter end of Jim Crow segregation, and his legislative successes ushered in a wave of modernity unknown in Arkansas legislative history.
Now, the documents and papers from Dale Leon Bumpers’ time as Arkansas’s 38th governor are open for historians, students, and the public to study at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture located at the Arkansas Studies Institute in the River Market District.
Slideshow: View Photographs from the opening ceremony.
Bumpers, 86, served as Arkansas’s governor from 1971 to 1975, when he was sworn in as U.S. senator. In the course of his political career, Bumpers defeated iconic Arkansas politicians Orval Faubus, Winthrop Rockefeller, and J. William Fulbright. The New York Times dubbed him “the giant killer.”
Born and raised in Charleston, Ark., Bumpers served in the Marines towards the end of World War II and earned a law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago before returning home to be, as he described it, “the best lawyer in a one-lawyer town.”
As counsel for the Charleston school board, Bumpers urged early and full compliance with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, making the district the first in the old confederacy to integrate public schools following the landmark decision. Three years later, Faubus defied the ruling and sparked the Little Rock Central High School crisis.
Republican Rockefeller defeated Faubus for governor in 1964 and expected to face him again in the 1970 election. But Bumpers came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination. The charismatic Bumpers promised reforms, both his own and those proposed by Rockefeller.
“There was more substantial progressive legislation enacted than in any other four-year period in Arkansas history,” then-Arkansas Gazette reporter Doug Smith said of Bumpers’ four years as governor. “And while that was going on, Bumpers was casually establishing himself as one of the more skillful politicians the state ever produced.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “Like Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Reubin O. Askew in Florida, and John C. West of South Carolina, Bumpers was often described as a new kind of Southern Democrat who would bring reform to his state and the Democratic Party. His victory over Rockefeller ushered in a new era of youthful reform-minded governors, including two of his successors, David Pryor – later a three-term U. S. senator – and future U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Dr. Deborah Baldwin – dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, who also serves as associate provost of the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture, said ASI is a joint venture between UALR and Central Arkansas Library System.
“The Bumpers’ papers add significant depth to the Arkansas governors’ collection led by UALR and the Butler Center,” Baldwin said. “They will assist researchers in defining the transformative leadership of Southern governors.”
The newly named UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture includes manuscript and photograph collections on women’s history, 19th century Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi West, political cartoon collections, legal papers relating to two decades of prison reform, and the papers of five 20th century Arkansas governors – Carl Bailey, Winthrop Rockefeller, Frank White, Jim Guy Tucker, as well as Bumpers. The papers of the late Lt. Gov. Win Paul Rockefeller and former Congressman and former University of Arkansas System President Ray Thornton held by UALR are also housed in the center.
“The partnership between UALR and CALS is one that benefits everyone,” said UALR Chancellor Joel E. Anderson. “Because of the partnership, the Center for Arkansas History and Culture provides students and scholars a unique opportunity to discover and learn about Arkansas’s history, and the addition of the Bumpers Research Fellows Program will strengthen the quality of research and resources that are available.”
The Bumpers Research Fellows Program will fund professional scholars and students the opportunity to study Bumpers’ governorship and legacy.
When UALR and CALS announced the partnership to build a center for Arkansas history, former President Bill Clinton said he would house the official papers from his years as governor of Arkansas at the new center, which he hoped would be a catalyst for understanding.
“Our young people … have more information than ever before, but I don’t know if they have more understanding,” Clinton, the 42nd president and 42nd governor of Arkansas said at the 2003 partnership announcement. “There is a lot of information and a lot of argument (in public discourse), but not enough explanation and not enough honest effort to evaluate the consequences of various policy choices. And I hope a lot of that will come out of this (collaboration).”
Located in downtown Little Rock, the center is housed in the Arkansas Studies Institute, the state’s largest facility dedicated to the study of Arkansas history and culture. Through its connection to the university, the archives benefit from the rigorous scholarship of our faculty, creating a valuable resource for students, researchers, stakeholders, and the general public.
The center ensures that the history of the state is accessible through the collection and maintenance of archival material, promotes an understanding of the past through scholarly exchange and public dialog, and supports academic achievement through the education of undergraduate and graduate students.