Maurice Lee “Footsie” Britt was an Arkansas native who rose to fame as an athlete, soldier, businessman, and state politician. He played football and basketball at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and then advanced to professional football, until the attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the country into World War II. Britt became an exemplary soldier as the first person in American history to earn all the army’s top awards, including the Medal of Honor, while fighting in a single war. After suffering numerous wounds, including one that caused his right arm to have to be amputated, Britt returned to Arkansas and undertook a career in business management. Later in life, he served two terms as the lieutenant governor of Arkansas. Britt was also a cousin to internationally known actress Dorothy Lamour.
Morris Britt was born on June 29, 1919, in Carlisle (Lonoke County), the son of Morris Lee and Virgie Britt, who farmed in the area. He was named Morris after his father, but during grade school, a teacher told him his name was spelled wrong and changed the spelling to Maurice.
The family moved to Lonoke (Lonoke County) when Britt was a boy, where he completed high school. There are various explanations as to how Britt received his nickname, “Footsie,” but most credit the moniker to his size-thirteen shoes. Since everyone called him by his nickname, he did not know of any misspelling of his name until decades later, when he obtained a copy of his birth certificate.
While attending school in Lonoke, Britt’s physical prowess was evident in every sport he played. He was also an excellent student; he won several essay contests and was lauded for his achievements in Latin and English. While a senior at Lonoke High School, he was elected class president and also served as captain of the track, football, and basketball teams. Britt was the valedictorian when he graduated on June 5, 1937.
An athletic scholarship at UA led Britt to earn letters in basketball and football. He was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity and sports editor of the student newspaper, Arkansas Traveler. Britt married Nancy Mitchell of Fort Smith (Sebastian County) on June 8, 1941, and graduated with his degree in journalism the next day.
Britt played professional football for the Detroit Lions until his career was shortened due to his draft into the army in December 1941. As an officer with the Third Infantry Division, his athletic abilities and experience with teamwork served him well while he commanded action in the African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns.
In a battle to take Rome on November 10, 1943, near Mignano, Italy, Britt led his small company of men in a counterattack opposing approximately 100 German soldiers. Without the repulse of this attack, his battalion would have been isolated and his company destroyed. It was an intense firefight and involved hand grenades and close-range machine gun, pistol, and rifle fire. During this fierce battle, Britt received a bullet wound in his side while his chest, face, and hands were covered with wounds caused by grenades, yet he still managed to throw thirty-two hand grenades. His bold and aggressive actions against the Germans were successful and allowed several captured Americans to escape.
Involved in many battles, Britt later lost his right arm when an artillery shell landed near him on February 12, 1944. For his military gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in the Mignano, Italy, battle, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Other awards for his service included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart from the United States, as well as the Military Cross of the British Empire and the Al Valoré Militaré Merit from the Italians. Britt received his Medal of Honor on the UA football field during the 1944 commencement ceremony.
On September 18, 1948, Britt gave the dedication speech for War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock (Pulaski County), which was named to honor those who lost their lives in World War I and World War II.
Britt settled in Fort Smith, where he joined a furniture manufacturing business owned by his wife’s family. He and Nancy had three children: Andrea, Maurice Jr., and Nancy Lea. In 1963, he relocated to Little Rock and established his own aluminum product manufacturing business.
He eventually divorced Nancy. His second marriage was to Patricia Allbright Britt on November 12, 1966; she died on December 1, 1993.
In 1966, Britt switched allegiances from the Democratic to the Republican Party, likely in conflict with segregationist beliefs held by some in the Democratic Party at the time. He successfully ran for lieutenant governor while Winthrop Rockefeller ran for governor, and both courted newly enfranchised black voters. Britt served two terms, ending in 1970. When he chose not to run for reelection in 1970, he became the campaign manager for Rockefeller’s unsuccessful third-term bid.
Britt was offered a position as the district director of the Small Business Administration by President Nixon in 1971 and served in this capacity until 1985. He ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 1986 but suffered defeat by former governor Frank White.
Britt died on November 26, 1995, and is buried in the Little Rock National Cemetery.
For additional information:
Dillard, Tom. “‘Footsie’ Britt excelled in sports, military, business.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 18, 2006, p. 5H.
Maurice “Footsie” Britt Collection. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Virgie Oliver Britt Collection. Torreyson Library Special Collections. University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Arkansas.
Ellen E. Withers