The Council on Community Affairs (COCA) was an African-American civil rights leadership group in Little Rock (Pulaski County) that was active in the 1960s. Growing out of a need to provide coordinated black leadership in the city after the 1957 Central High School desegregation crisis, COCA was spearheaded by a group of young medical professionals. The group was careful to incorporate and bring together different figures and power bases within the black community. Through this coordinated leadership, COCA was successful in helping to desegregate Little Rock’s downtown facilities. Placing pressure on the Little Rock school board to move ahead more quickly with school desegregation, it also pressed for more and better political and economic representation for black citizens in the city. Many of its members went on to play influential roles both in Arkansas and outside the state.
During the 1957 Little Rock school crisis, black leadership in Little Rock had revolved around the central figure of Daisy Bates. However, after schools reopened in 1959, Bates went to New York to write her memoir The Long Shadow of Little Rock (1962), leaving a vacuum of leadership. As regional National Urban League representative C. D. Coleman put it in 1959, “the one great problem facing Little Rock [is] the lack of unity, confidence and cooperation between Negro leaders and the lack of regular and orderly lines of communication between Negro organizations....Disunity among Negro leaders [is of] greater concern than the school crisis.”
The impact of this lack of leadership was underscored by the failure of the student sit-in movement in 1960 to make any difference in the city. Philander Smith College students were handed large fines and stiff prison sentences that ground the movement to a halt. Without an adult leadership group to help articulate demands and lend support, the sit-ins proved ineffective. When the Freedom Rides came to Little Rock the following year, they failed to achieve their goal of desegregating interstate transport terminal facilities.
Dismayed by the events of the sit-ins and embarrassed by the city’s treatment of the Freedom Riders, a young cadre of black medical professionals—Dr. William H. Townsend, Dr. Maurice A. Jackson, Dr. Garman P. Freeman, and Freeman’s wife, Dr. Evangeline Upshur—decided to act. The four had recently banded together to set up their own joint practice in the city after working in the offices of Dr. John Marshall Robinson on West 9th Street for several years. In the 1960s, their new offices on Wright Avenue became the headquarters of COCA. The organization dedicated itself to providing the type of coordinated black community leadership needed to bring an end to the city’s segregated facilities.
This new black leadership group strove to foster good relations with older leaders and existing organizations, persuading them to pool their constituencies of support in the pursuit of civil rights. COCA put black leaders onto various committees that met to formulate policy, reporting to an executive board for consultation on all decisions made by the organization. By incorporating all factions within the black community under one umbrella, COCA managed to temper rivalries between different leaders and organizations.
On March 8, 1962, twenty-two members of COCA filed a collective suit in the U.S. District Court against the city board of directors for the desegregation of “public parks, recreational facilities, Joseph T. Robinson Auditorium and all other public facilities.” Members of the city board of directors admitted that the desegregation of public facilities was “a foregone conclusion,” should the case go to court. Nevertheless, there was an absolute commitment to fight the lawsuit, if only to buy time to devise other methods that could avoid desegregation.
It took new direct action protests to make the desired breakthrough. In October 1962, at the request of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker Bill Hansen arrived in Little Rock and helped to mobilize new sit-in demonstrations that brought the city’s businessmen to the negotiating table. White business leaders formed a Downtown Negotiating Committee, which included COCA representatives, to bring an end to downtown segregation. A phased plan of desegregation began with downtown lunch counters in January 1963.
On February 15, Federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the COCA desegregation lawsuit. The ruling ordered an end to racial segregation in all public facilities, except for public swimming pools, which COCA did not specifically mention in the suit. In June, the city’s movie theaters and Robinson Auditorium admitted African Americans. By October, most of the city’s restaurants had desegregated. By the end of 1963, without drama, Little Rock had desegregated most of its public and some of its private facilities, including all city parks, playgrounds, golf courses, the Little Rock Zoo, and the Arkansas Arts Center.
COCA continued to play an important role in community affairs in the 1960s. Notably, on April 6, 1964, it organized a boycott of Little Rock schools to put pressure on the Little Rock school board to implement a faster and more comprehensive plan for school desegregation. COCA worked on many initiatives and on many fronts in the 1960s. There is no record of any definitive point that it ceased to operate. Rather, the organization and its members appear to have gradually morphed into different roles.
COCA member Dr. William H. Townsend’s career provides a good indication of the organization’s efforts, achievements, and trajectory. In 1962 and 1966, he ran for a position on Little Rock’s city board, although he was not elected. In 1966, he was the chairman of the Arkansas Voter Project (AVP), a statewide voter registration initiative run under the aegis of the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project. In 1972, he became chair of the ACHR. Later that year, he was elected as one of the first black state representatives to the Arkansas General Assembly in the twentieth century. Fellow COCA member Dr. Jerry Jewell became the first black state senator in the twentieth century.
COCA provided much-needed black leadership in Little Rock at a critical juncture in community relations, bridging the period between the end of the Little Rock school crisis and the beginning of African Americans in Arkansas gaining political offices for the first time. It played a vital role in navigating the process of desegregation and provided leadership roles and training for many black leaders.
For additional information:
Arkansas Council on Human Relations Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Kirk, John A. Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007.
———. Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940–1970. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock