As I read the attacks on social media from those who criticized Gov. Asa Hutchinson for his stand on the Arkansas flag, the comments that made me smile the widest were the ones that called Hutchinson a RINO. The acronym stands for Republican In Name Only.

You see, I first met Hutchinson 35 years ago when I was working full time for a GOP candidate. In those days, there were so few people identifying themselves as Republicans in Arkansas that most of us knew each other on a first-name basis.

I was working for Judy Petty, the Republican candidate in the 2nd Congressional District who ran an unsuccessful race against the Democratic sheriff of Pulaski County, Tommy Robinson. Hutchinson had become the youngest U.S. attorney in the country two years earlier when he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to serve the Western District of Arkansas. He made a name for himself by prosecuting a group of right-wing extremists known as the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord. By the time Hutchinson ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers in 1986, I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat and was writing stories about the race.

I shake my head when Hutchinson is called a RINO because it's likely that those making the charge (if they were old enough to vote 35 years ago) were participating in Democratic primaries. The state's dominant Democratic Party was the refuge for most of the 20th century for those who sought to hold black Arkansans down. It was Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, who in November 1966 became the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win here since Reconstruction, who finally began breaking down the color barriers and allowing blacks to serve at high levels in state government.

In 1984, there were still enough people around who had worked from 1967-71 in the Rockefeller administration to teach people like Hutchinson and me just what it meant to be an Arkansas Republican.

I was reminded of that proud legacy when a book arrived earlier this month in the mail. My friend Derrick Smith, a lawyer with the Mitchell Williams firm in Little Rock, knows I'm from Arkadelphia and thought I might find it interesting. The title of the book by prominent California attorney Robert L. Harris is Goodbye, Arkadelphia: Turning Obstacles Into Opportunities.

Harris, who's black, was raised in the small community of Manchester, across the Ouachita River from Arkadelphia in the eastern part of Clark County. He picked cotton as a boy and attended school when he could. In 1960, his parents put him on a bus to Oakland, Calif., to escape segregated Arkansas. He graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 1961, Merritt College in 1963 and San Francisco State University in 1965. Harris received his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1972, then spent 34 years with the utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric Co. He became the first company attorney to argue and win a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and retired as the PG&E vice president of environmental, health, safety, technical and land services. He was a longtime civil rights activist and civic leader in the San Francisco Bay area.

"My success was against the odds," Harris writes. "I had received my primary education in a segregated two-room schoolhouse in rural Arkansas, where I used hand-me-down textbooks from the white school. All but one year of my secondary education was spent in a segregated, under-financed high school in Arkadelphia. And through those years, my classroom education was possible only when I wasn't out in the fields picking cotton. . . . Now I belong to an exclusive golf club, drive a Mercedes-Benz and fly first-class on airplanes all over the world. I've come a long way from Arkadelphia. At the same time, however, I see a flashback of a different me--the determination on the face of the little boy that I was in the back of the truck heading to the cotton fields."

As a younger white man who grew up in comfortable circumstances inside the Arkadelphia city limits, I can only relate to Harris' childhood to this extent: There were still a lot of black farmers in that area when I was a boy. My father, who loved to quail hunt and owned a sporting goods store, knew them. He would give them shotgun shells in exchange for letting us hunt on their land. I remember one-armed Arthur Bullock, who lived in an unpainted house with a tin roof and a hog pen out back. Bullock's lack of an arm didn't keep him from squirrel and rabbit hunting. We would stop by his house at the end of the day and exchange some of our quail for several of his squirrels and rabbits, which my father loved eating. When Bullock killed a hog after the first freeze, he would give us sausage. Those cotton fields of my youth are planted in pine trees these days, but the Manchester hunting trips gave me a sense of how Harris was raised.

Harris' older sister convinced their parents to let him live with her in Oakland. Harris writes: "Mother and Daddy drove me to Arkadelphia and bought me a one-way ticket. There was no time to get used to the idea that I was leaving and no time for second-guessing. It was just happening. Before boarding, I took one last look at my mother, who had tears in her eyes. Much like my sister, I was strong willed, but there was also the fear of the unknown pulsating in my heart. Here I was, a 16-year-old, heading to an unknown place, 2,000 miles away. Everything I owned was tightly packed in a small suitcase made of cardboard, so flimsy that I could have sliced it with a dull knife. No trinkets, no photos--just a few pairs of pants, several shirts, underwear and socks. My only shoes were on my feet. When I got on the bus in Arkadelphia, I walked straight to the back, just as I knew I had to."

For young black men and women like Harris, there was no future in Arkansas. It dawns on me that it was a transplant from New York--Winthrop Rockefeller--who six years later finally would give black Arkansans hope for the future and a reason to stay here.

That's the history of the Arkansas Republican Party, a tradition far different from the growth of modern Republicanism in other Southern states. In what's now a majority Republican state, it's why I write yet again that the time has come for GOP elected officials in Arkansas to learn about and embrace their Rockefeller Republican roots.

Those who refuse to do so will be the true RINOs in the room.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 03/24/2019

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