Amis Robert Guthridge was a Little Rock (Pulaski County) attorney and businessman best known for his role in organizing resistance to school desegregation in Hoxie (Lawrence County) in 1955 and at Little Rock Central High in 1957. Though he first gained national notoriety as the lead spokesman for these anti-integration campaigns, Guthridge’s activist career began in the late 1940s when he held prominent positions in the “Dixiecrat” Party and the anti-union Arkansas Free Enterprise Association. Indeed, Guthridge’s passion for rolling back what he saw as the “socialistic” takeover unleashed by the New Deal was equal to and integral to his passion for maintaining racial segregation.
Amis Guthridge was born in Hot Springs (Garland County) in 1908 to Arthur and Myrtle Guthridge; he was the fourth of seven children. His father managed the Citizens’ Daily Bulletin, a newspaper known for its outspoken opposition to political corruption and gambling in Hot Springs. Arthur Guthridge edited several other small-town papers, and the family moved frequently, finally settling in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), where Amis Guthridge was later elected student body president of Fort Smith High School. Guthridge graduated from Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) with a bachelor of education degree in 1933. He later designated this year—President Franklin Roosevelt’s first year in office—as the point when “communists actually took over the operation of the government of the United States from the inside.”
After college, Guthridge opened a furniture store in Little Rock. He married Ellen Margaret Parker in the 1930s; they had three children. During the 1930s and 1940s, in addition to running his business and raising a family, he stayed active in several civic groups. In 1948, he entered electoral politics, first chairing the Arkansas Free Enterprise Association and then serving as state secretary for Strom Thurmond’s presidential campaign on the States’ Rights Democratic—or “Dixiecrat”—ticket. The Free Enterprise Association focused on curtailing the power of unions and preventing the expansion of federal labor laws (like minimum wage) to agricultural workers; the Dixiecrats opposed the Democrats’ new civil rights plank and rising black political influence in the national party organization.
Having watched black voters contribute to the margin of victory in the 1948 election of Governor Sid McMath, Guthridge worried about black political participation at the local level, too. After earning his law degree at what is now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law in 1951, he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. representative in 1952. Two more campaigns—a second attempt at the Fifth District congressional seat in 1958 and a bid for state attorney general in 1960—also ended in defeat.
Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas U.S. Supreme Court decision, Guthridge became counsel for White America, Inc., a new organization “to help the white people to organize to fight legally and morally for their rights.” In the summer of 1955, Guthridge filed suit on behalf of the Hoxie Citizens Committee to halt the peaceful and voluntary desegregation of the local elementary school. The committee had formed after White America blanketed the northeast Arkansas district with literature asking, “Will our descendants be Anglo-Saxon or mulatto?”
The legal fight to halt school integration in Hoxie was unsuccessful. But equating school integration with interracial sex stirred fierce resistance to desegregation. Over the following year, White America and the newly formed White Citizens’ Council of Arkansas (the two groups merged in 1956) held rallies across the state to promote the gubernatorial campaign of council president Jim Johnson and a proposed “nullification” amendment directing state officials to ignore federal school desegregation decisions. Guthridge proved to be a skilled stump speaker. He thrilled audiences with attacks on Harry Ashmore (“the left wing bleeding-heart socialist editor for the Arkansas Gazette”), white Methodist women (who “want integration so that the Negro can get in the white bedroom”), and, above all, school integration (a “plan that was founded in Moscow in 1924 to mongrelize the white race in America”).
The battle over desegregating Little Rock Central High marked the pinnacle of segregationists’ “Massive Resistance” campaign and Guthridge’s career. Beginning in the spring of 1957, Little Rock’s Capital Citizens’ Council (CCC) responded to the Little Rock school board’s desegregation stance by creating chaos. For nearly three years, CCC activists fought a battle of attrition, harassing and exhausting their opposition with an arsenal of tactics that included red-baiting, lobbying, letter-writing campaigns, all-night phone calls, lawsuits, blacklists, street protests, consumer boycotts, and veiled threats of violence. As attorney, advisor, and spokesman for the CCC, Guthridge basked in the national spotlight, touring the South and speaking to sympathetic parent-teacher associations, citizens’ councils, and politicians about the “communist plot” to integrate Little Rock. Audiences gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to support an all-white private academy and a “freedom fund” for the legal defense of segregationists.
Guthridge was elected president of the CCC in 1961, but by then the issue of school integration had cooled, membership had fallen off, and many local councils were inactive. The “Reverse Freedom Rides,” launched the following spring, would be Guthridge’s last major campaign. The CCC provided free one-way bus tickets for thirty-four black Arkansans (unemployed adults and twenty children) from Little Rock to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The program was conceived as a way to mock the Freedom Ride campaign to desegregate interstate transportation in the South while simultaneously exposing northern liberals as hypocrites who would turn their back on black southerners once they were a human reality rather than a political symbol. The plan backfired. For the most part, Cape Cod residents welcomed and assisted the Arkansas migrants. Meanwhile, white Arkansans once again took the national stage as hateful racists. By 1962, even those Arkansans who strongly favored segregation wanted no part in actions that would further damage the state’s image.
Guthridge’s hard work helped make Arkansas, once considered a promising place for Southern civil rights, into an international symbol of racist resistance to integration. Yet Guthridge was also a precursor to a more contemporary variety of segregationist thinking. Later groups such as the John Birch Society and Conservative Citizens’ Council (formerly the White Citizens’ Council) assiduously avoided public discussion of white supremacy or black activism, finding it most effective to attack the civil rights movement as a front for socialist sympathizers and the expansion of big government.
After the Reverse Freedom Ride, Guthridge worked in his wife’s antique shop, practiced law, and continued to insist that school integration had been a mistake and a failure. But his days as a historically important figure were over. Guthridge died on September 17, 1977. He is buried at Roselawn Memorial Park.
For additional information:
Jacoway, Elizabeth. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation. New York: Free Press, 2007.
McMillen, Neil. “White Citizens’ Council and Organized Resistance to School Desegregation in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 30 (Summer 1971): 95–122.
Obituary of Amis R. Guthridge. Arkansas Gazette. September 18, 1977, p. 14A.
Obituary of Amis R. Guthridge. Arkansas Democrat. September 18, 1977, p. 18A.
University of Central Arkansas