He started out a working-class kid from the town of Rochdale, north of Manchester, in the United Kingdom, the son of a construction worker.
Today, John A. Kirk is a foremost authority on the history of the civil rights movement in Arkansas, the U.S., and the South.
An award-winning author of five books and numerous scholarly articles, Kirk was recognized recently in the Huffington Post on MLK Day 2011 for writing one of the best 10 books on the civil rights leader, a reference to his 2005 book, “Martin Luther King Jr.: Profiles in Power.”
Last year, Kirk made a career move that landed him at center stage of his research. He became the ninth chair of UALR’s Department of History on a campus located just a few miles from Central High School.
This June, the UALR Donaghey Professor of History will release his fifth book, “Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas, 1962-1967,” a publication co-edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach, with a forward by Juan Williams. In 2008, Kirk was editor of An Epitaph for Little Rock: A Fiftieth Anniversary Retrospective on the Central High Crisis.
With a Ph.D. from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, and a hint of a regional English brogue, Kirk suggests that it may take an unbiased outsider to research and understand the history of social integration of the races from the 1940s to the 1970s.
The crisis at Central High was the first important test of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka decision.
Facing strong political opposition from the segregationist right, then Arkansas 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 Little Rock 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. “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 Arsnick book will focus on 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 semester focused on American politics.
“My headmaster was an American fanatic, and he encouraged me to concentrate on American Studies,” Kirk said. A required study abroad program brought him to Carroll College in Wisconsin, where he spent some time in Milwaukee and at Roosevelt College in downtown Chicago for an urban experience.
“I wrote my senior thesis on William Faulkner and the American South, graduating from Nottingham with honors in 1991,” he said.
But his interest in American civil rights blossomed during his graduate studies at Newcastle upon Tyne. 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 brought him to Little Rock where he spent 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.”
He met UALR Archivist Linda Pine and drove with friends to Washington 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 Clintons had for Arkansans in Washington for the inauguration,” he said.
“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 said in recounting the conversation. 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 said.
Kirk said he is delighted to be living and working in Little Rock.
“It is a good place to be,” he said, pointing to the Public History Institute in his own department and the plethora of history museums in town – the former Territorial Restoration, now the Historic Arkansas Museum; the Arkansas History Institute; 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 support for historical research here,” Kirk said. “The History Institute in my department offers a subscription series of three talks a year that routinely draw 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.
Courtesy University of Arkansas at Little Rock