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Arkansas lawyer who helped bring desegregation of Little Rock auditorium dies 6 years after stroke

by Bill Bowden | January 9, 2020 at 7:00 a.m.

An Arkansas lawyer who helped bring about the desegregation of Little Rock's Robinson auditorium has died.

Beresford "Bere" L. Church died Monday, six years after suffering a stroke.

"That's when he sort of lost interest in the things he really loved to do," said Ann Church, his wife.

The things he loved to do included gardening, traveling, watching the Arkansas Razorbacks play football and listening to jazz records daily.

"Jazz was always the big thing in his life," Ann Church said. "He loved that. We spent lots of time in New York City at the Blue Note, where the likes of Wynton Marsalis and various and sundry people played."

When Bere (pronounced Barry) started first grade, he was immediately moved to the third grade because he could already read and knew his multiplication tables, his wife said.

He attended North Little Rock public schools through the 10th grade and spent the next two years at Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind.

Church then entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville at the age of 17.

During the early 1950s, he earned a bachelor's degree from Vanderbilt, a master's of business administration degree from Columbia University in New York City, and then a law degree from Vanderbilt.

Church began his law career at Spitzberg, Bonner, Mitchell and Hays, where he practiced from 1955-79. In 1979, he became a sole practitioner, specializing in real estate law.

Church was a founding member of Modern Music of Little Rock, which brought several jazz greats to Arkansas' capital in the early 1960s. He was also the organization's attorney and secretary.

One of Modern Music's goals was to fully integrate Little Rock's Robinson Center Music Hall, Jim Porter of Little Rock, who was president of the organization, wrote in a column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Black patrons were required to sit in the auditorium's balcony in the early 1960s. That prompted Duke Ellington, famously, to cancel a performance there in 1961 after getting pressure from the NAACP.

During a performance of the Count Basie Orchestra on March 22, 1963, "several blacks did descend to the main floor, but the security guards did nothing to stop it," Porter wrote in a 2008 letter to the Democrat-Gazette.

"As the evening wore on, there was an increase of racial mixing, which is what we were trying to achieve through this and other concerts we promoted leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1965," wrote Porter, who died in 2015. "Those in attendance took another small step toward the musical integration of Little Rock."

Full integration finally happened at Robinson auditorium in September 1966 at a performance by Louis Armstrong and his All Stars.

William Whitworth, of Little Rock -- a former Arkansas Gazette reporter who is now editor emeritus of The Atlantic -- met Church in the 1960s, when Church was a young lawyer.

Whitworth said he was struck by the intensity of Church's interest in music, especially jazz.

"Bere knew more about more jazz musicians and jazz albums than any other non-musician I've ever met," said Whitworth. "The way I remember it, his obsession began when he was 8 or 10 years old, on a family trip to Los Angeles, where he was taken to a concert by Woody Herman's big jazz band. Bere just never got over the excitement of hearing that loud, joyous music."

Ann Church said she married Bere in 1976.

"Bere Church was known by his character," she said. "That was very important to him in his professional life and in his personal life. It was very important to be honest. He was a good person."

After he retired from the law profession in 1999, he became an avid gardener and pseudo farmer with chickens, goats, guinea hens, a potbellied pig and some turtles, Ann Church said.

She said the song "Wave" by Frank Sinatra will be played at her husband's funeral, as he requested.

Metro on 01/09/2020

Print Headline: Arkansas lawyer who helped bring desegregation of Little Rock auditorium dies 6 years after stroke

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