The Arkansas State Sovereignty Commission (ASSC) was created in February 1957 to “protect the sovereignty of Arkansas…from encroachment by the federal government” in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas school desegregation decision and 1955 implementation order. Although given sweeping powers, the ASSC in fact met only twice, proving itself to be merely posturing over rather than actually practicing measures against the federal government. Nevertheless, the creation of the ASSC was an opening salvo in a three-year barrage of pro-segregation laws passed by successive sessions of the Arkansas General Assembly.
The ASSC, modeled after the Virginia State Sovereignty Commission, was created by Act 83 of the 1957 Arkansas General Assembly. The act was one of a number in that session—including Acts 84, 85, and 86—that related to school desegregation. All of these acts were introduced as bills by Representative Lucien C. Rogers (D) of Crittenden County. These acts followed the passage of Amendment 44 to the Arkansas Constitution in 1956, which declared Arkansas in opposition to the Brown decisions and ordered state legislators to disregard them.
The ASSC was composed of three members of the Arkansas House of Representatives, two members of the Arkansas Senate, and three private citizens who were regular members of the commission. The governor, attorney general, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives were ex officio members. Representatives, senators, and citizens were chosen according to residence requirements set out in Act 83, which decreed that, for the three House and the three non-elected members of the ASSC, one should reside south of the Arkansas River, one east of the White River, and one north of the Arkansas River and west of the White River. The ASSC was granted the authority to conduct investigations and examine any records, documents, or holdings of organizations and private citizens that the ASSC deemed worthy of investigation.
Governor Orval Faubus noted that the creation of the ASSC—alongside Act 85, which required organizations working against segregation to record and report any contributors and the amounts of their contributions—meant that the state could monitor and potentially outlaw the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) if the association acted outside of its bounds as a nonprofit organization. This paved the way for later anti-NAACP legislation passed by the Arkansas General Assembly in 1958 and 1959.
Given its extraordinary and far-reaching powers, the ASSC drew a good deal of criticism. The Arkansas Christian Movement felt that the ASSC violated the separation of church and state mandated by the U.S. Constitution, given its ability to investigate and require churches to report the records of their contributions. An Arkansas Gazette editorial labeled Act 83 “‘extremist’ and ‘punitive’ legislation certain to be reversed in court and…damaging to race relations.” Winthrop Rockefeller, chair of what was then the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, noted his distaste for the ASSC, saying, “That bill is dangerous….It would set up what you might call an Arkansas gestapo. No organization would be safe from the embarrassment of an investigation.”
On September 19, 1957, the Reverend Roland Smith, a local African-American Baptist minister, filed suit along with nine other black Little Rock (Pulaski County) ministers, listing a string of complaints against the ASSC. The suit alleged that, in addition to the commission infringing upon the filers’ First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, portions of the act that created the ASSC were invalidated by the Arkansas Constitution. In Chancery Court testimony on April 9, 1958, Senator Charles Smith (D), one of the Senate members of the ASSC, stated that since its creation, the commission had met only twice and had undertaken no investigations. Presiding judge Guy E. Williams ruled that Act 83 was constitutional, and the case was appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The Arkansas Supreme Court noted on appeal in September 1959 that the Arkansas Constitution in Article 5, Section 10 barred members of the Arkansas General Assembly from being elected to or appointed to another civil office. The court also ruled that Section 3 of Act 83 conflicted with Article 2, Section 22 of the Arkansas Constitution, which forbade the unreasonable seizure of property without compensation. However, the court ruled all other sections of Act 83 constitutional.
Following the decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court, which demolished the most significant powers of the ASSC, it appears that the commission never met again. Acts passed in the Arkansas General Assembly in 1958 and 1959 sought other means to achieve what the ASSC had failed to do.
For additional information:
Faubus, Orval Eugene. Down from the Hills. Little Rock: Pioneer, 1980.
“State Sovereignty Commission—Arkansas.” Race Relations Law Reporter 2 (1958): 491–494.
Williams, Johnny E. African-American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
University of Arkansas at Little Rock