Sid McMath - An Arkansan for All Seasons

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an Arkansan for All Seasons

One hundred years ago, June 14, 1912, Sidney Sanders McMath was born in a dogtrot log cabin—yes, really!, a log cabin—on a hardscrabble farm in Columbia County, near the Louisiana border. He picked cotton as a boy and moved by muddy roads from one destitute community to another with his alcoholic father “Pap” and his mother and sister, until his father took up barbering and settled at Hot Springs. The hardship and dislocation he experienced everywhere as a youngster, along with all the family sorrows, infused in him a zeal to improve the lives of people, especially in the blighted Arkansas countryside. As a student and a Marine, he saw that things were better nearly everywhere else than in rural Arkansas. The passion to serve people would guide him in heroic pursuits on the battlefields of the Pacific, in the “GI Revolt” against the political machines after the war, in four momentous years as governor, and as the founder and patriarch of what he called a “people’s law firm,” which for the next 60 years represented nothing and no one but ordinary people in their quest for safety and justice in the workplace, equal services in the public realm, and protection of the land, air, water and natural resources that are the gifts to all people.



Above: Gen. McMath with Marine


sons Sandy and Phillip before the sons left for Vietnam. Right: Combat veteran George Fisher drew this cartoon panel for McMath in 1948.

When he returns to his own community from the war and finds his own people deprived of their right to vote, when he discovers that their lives and liberties are not secure, when it is threatened that if he exercises the right of citizenship and runs for public office without the consent of the political boss . . . what is his reaction? — Sid McMath, on the GI Revolt, 1946

Maj. Sid McMath at the Marine jungle warfare school on American Samoa.



For Sidney Sanders McMath, like millions who fought in World War II and came home, the war altered his destiny and defined him for the rest of his life. McMath always thought of himself first not as Governor Sid McMath but as Marine Lt. Col. McMath or, later, Maj. Gen. McMath of the Marine Reserves. He was proud of his decorations for heroism in the crucial battles in the Pacific at Bougainville and Guadalcanal, where he engaged in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, though he seldom mentioned the medals. The war remained always the high point of what he thought was a life of service even if it included only six years in public offices. More than that, the experiences of war—both the horrors and the thrill of it—planted the seeds of ambition, to be a hero back home as well as in war by raising up people in his still depressed state. It invested him after the war with the boldness to take on the riskiest tasks in politics, including those that in fairly short order ended his political career. The war brought the want of his childhood and the hardships of nearly everyone he knew into sharp relief and sent him home with determination to fix things that the state’s leaders for a century had left unattended. Even in peace and comfort, they had not led. McMath began life in a tiny log cabin on the edge of a cotton field in southern Columbia County farmed by his grandmother, “Mother Mae” McMath. His grandfather Sid, the sheriff, had been gunned down the year before when he tried to arrest some outlaws. Young Sid’s father, Hal, his mother, Nettie Belle, and his sister, Edyth Mae, worked on Mother Mae’s little farm and Hal found odd jobs in nearby communities. When Sid was five the family left the dogtrot house and wandered around the county, to Walker, Bussey, Taylor, or wherever Hal could find makeshift labor. For a while after the big Shuler and Smackover field booms, they drifted into neighboring Union County where Hal and his team of horses dug oil pits. But always they

moved on, to something else equally unpromising. In his memoir, Promises Kept, which he wrote and dictated in the two years before his death in 2003, McMath recalled details of the deprivation and backwardness of rural South Arkansas. When he and his sister at the ages of 10 and 12 were brought to Hot Springs to join his parents, who had gotten jobs in a barbershop cutting hair and nails, Sid encountered pavement for the first time on Whittington Avenue and electricity in homes. When he was elected governor 26 years later, vast stretches of rural Arkansas still had neither. By then, he would have discovered that this wasn’t true much of anywhere but Arkansas. A few memories were worse than others. “Seared into my childhood memory,” he wrote in 2002, “is witnessing the return of a young black man to the cotton fields where he had been put to work.” The man had been convicted of some petty crime and kept in jail to supply hands for field work, a common practice in Arkansas in those days. “The young man had been ‘leased’ to the farmer, but at the first opportunity he had run away. Upon being returned he was hobbled with leg chains. Before putting him back to work, his arms were placed around a tree, his wrists handcuffed, his back bared, and he was horsewhipped. The young man did not cry; he moaned. This I could never forget; I can still hear the crack of the whip followed by the deep, mournful sounds coming from the depths of his being. From what I saw, from what I knew, came a deep resolve, a promise—someday, some way, I would help these people.” In Hot Springs, McMath sold cabbage door to door and hot dogs at Whittington Park, for professional and semiprofessional baseball teams, delivered newspapers and milked and grazed the cow his father had acquired and kept in town next to the lush grass of the national park. McMath attended Henderson State Teachers College at nearby Arkadelphia for two years and

transferred to the University of Arkansas, where he got a law degree and an ROTC commission in the Marines in 1936 by trading weeks of training at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and law classes at Fayetteville. He said no one missed him at either place. He joined the Marines at Quantico, Va., in 1936 but went home to practice law the next year after promising Lewis “Chesty” Puller, who would become the most decorated Marine in history, that he would rejoin if the United States went to war, which Puller said was imminent. With war on the horizon, he left his law practice and young bride and rejoined the Marines in the summer of 1940, 16 months before Pearl Harbor. His unit shipped out to the Pacific islands two years later. McMath ran the jungle warfare school for Marines on American Samoa and after repeated pleas to be sent to the front in September 1943 he led the Third Marine Regiment to battle the Japanese in the Solomon Islands. They drove the Japanese off Guadalcanal and then in October conquered the island of Bougainville, which enabled American air and naval forces to command the skies and sea lanes in the southwest Pacific. McMath was the regimental operations officer. The ferocious hand-to-hand fighting in the swamps of Bougainville established the McMath legend. Promoted to battlefield command, McMath masterminded and led the Battle of Piva Forks, which won him the Silver Star and Legion of Merit. His men were pinned down by mortar and machinegun fire. They would later describe the commander, oblivious to the explosions and bullets whizzing around him, racing among them shouting that they were Marines and exhorting them to get up and charge. The Marines took a pivotal knoll and ended Japanese opposition to the U.S. beachhead on the island. The Marines lost 115 men; they counted 1,107 Japanese dead at the end of the struggle.

C AN WE HEL P? The Silver Star citation signed by Adm. William “Bull” Halsey said McMath’s heroism and disregard for his own safety was an inspiration to the officers and men of the unit. McMath contracted malaria and a tropical disease called philariasis in the mosquito-infested Bougainville swamps and was hospitalized for months in New Zealand before being

sent back to the United States. He was in the Marine headquarters in the Pentagon planning the amphibious invasion of the Japanese islands when the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war. The war had taken a terrible personal toll. His wife had died at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Quantico on their fifth wedding anniversary in 1942. Mc-

Math came home to a four-year-old son. But in Washington he met Anne Phillips, who worked for a Missouri congressman, and they were subsequently married. It was with Anne Phillips that he first confided an ambition to go back to Hot Springs, run for prosecuting attorney and clean up the corruption in his county.

From the Prologue of Promises Kept, a memoir dictated by Sid McMath when he was 90 and blind, and published by the University of Arkansas Press in October 2003, the week of his death. In 1948, I was honored by the good people of Arkansas by being chosen as their governor. I had specific


goals and objectives


fairly fixed in my mind. I needed no public opinion poll to unveil our public needs or to reveal to me our state’s

“Hot Springs,” McMath wrote of his city, “was a notorious, wide-open town. A multimillion-dollar gambling operation was its life, entertainment was its lure, civic corruption was its distinction.” Mobsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano dawdled in the hotels and bathhouses, the guests likely of Hot Springs’ own transplanted mob boss, Oney Madden, and the machinery of government and civic life was fueled by the secret payoff and regularly arranged “fines” for violating the gambling laws. Since gambling was illegal, the whole system depended upon unified control of everything—law enforcement, the courts, election levers and nearly every county and municipal office. Mayor Leo McLaughlin was in charge of it. The dapper McLaughlin often paraded down Hot Springs’s Central Avenue in an elegant sulky pulled by his galloping show horses Scotch and Soda. Over time, the mayor had perfected a voting system that guaranteed the election of men on his team for each and every office. The poll tax made that possible in almost any county that cared to exploit it, but in Garland County the technique achieved its acme. In January 1946, McMath was discharged from the Marines, moved to Hot Springs and immediately began running for prosecuting attorney in the summer primaries. He recruited other returning soldiers to run for other offices. By the filing deadline, he had veterans running for every public office in the county, from circuit judge to tax assessor. They formed an organization called the Government Improvement League, which was shortened to GI—thus the GI Revolt. The movement spread to other counties. McMath’s appeal struck a chord with the veterans. Chagrined by the ridicule of Arkansas that he had heard as an Air Corps procurement officer, Max Howell came home to Little Rock

that winter and ran for the legislature to see if he could help change the state and its image. Howell would form an alliance with the new GI governor two years later and then serve 46 years, longer than any legislator in Arkansas history. A sizable GI contingent greeted McMath at his inauguration at the Capitol in 1949. Beating the McLaughlin machine turned out to need more than the GIs’ bravado, organization and wide public support. McLaughlin’s men obtained large blocks of poll tax receipts every year and they were voted as needed, by cemetery residents, long-departed citizens, barroom drunks or just fictitious people. All of McMath’s men barely lost their races for city, county and district offices. McMath was elected prosecuting attorney (there was no Republican candidate in the fall) by an oversight by McLaughlin. Little Montgomery County (Mount Ida) was part of the prosecutor district. Telephone lines between Hot Springs and Mount Ida were down election day and McLaughlin miscalculated how many votes would be needed in Garland County to overcome a possible McMath vote in Montgomery County. The machine found out the next day, too late, that they had needed a few more votes to offset Mount Ida’s. The GIs and McMath’s canny wife, Anne, had detected widespread fraud in the count but since McLaughlin owned the law enforcement, prosecutor and the circuit court there was no remedy. McMath’s shrewd GI buddy, Nate Schoenfeld (a lawyer and later state representative), had an idea. If they could get the matter into federal court it would be out of the local machine’s control. The district federal judge, John E. Miller of Fort Smith, had been elected to the U. S. Senate in 1937 as an independent upstart against the Democrat candidate and might be sympathetic to the GIs’ plight.

So all the GIs filed for the same offices again, as independents, in the general election. Another McMath pal filed as a write-in candidate for Congress, which made the election a federal matter. Anne McMath had discovered blocks of poll tax receipts filled out with the names in alphabetical order, obviously from the phone book. They got a couple of participants to testify reluctantly about how the system worked. Judge Miller canceled 1,607 bogus poll-tax receipts, nearly a fourth of the votes, and the whole GI slate was swept into office in November. Two months after their swearing in, the new prosecutor and circuit judge assembled a grand jury to investigate the mayor’s administration. McLaughlin announced that he would not seek re-election. Only one person had run against him the previous 20 years. The grand jury eventually indicted McLaughlin on many charges, including bribery, misusing public funds and being an accessory to voting fraud. Less than two years later, McMath was in the governor’s office. McLaughlin was never convicted but his reign and the machine’s were over. Illegal gambling continued in Hot Springs off and on, often openly, for another 20 years, until Governor Winthrop Rockefeller sent the State Police to shut it down. In his second year in office he began to explore a race for governor. Gov. Ben Laney decided not to buck the state’s two-term tradition and to retire at the end of his term. Tragedy struck the McMaths again. While he was in south Arkansas testing the waters, his father took Sid’s favorite horse, which was crippled, and rode into Hot Springs, where he tanked up on liquor. An argument with Anne followed when he returned. The drunken Pap chased her into the house and up the stairs, where she shot and killed him. The inquest concluded that it was self-defense.

problems. It was obvious that we had to get out of the mud and the dust, build and improve our primary highway system, and provide secondary roads to get children in the rural areas to school and to transport farm products to market. I had experienced them, survived them. Later, campaigning for governor, I had to ride a horse in order to travel over the road from Magnolia to Bussey and Taylor, Arkansas. The economic blight and dislocation lingered like a black cloud that almost shut out the light to a better life and happier days. I appreciated how the burden of labor, especially that of the women, could be alleviated with the boon of electrical service. I picked cotton from prickly cotton bolls for one penny a pound, one dollar for the one hundred pounds, which is what I could pick when I was eight. During cotton-picking season many schools were closed. One-room schoolhouses offering instruction in eight grades with one teacher would be closed so the children could join with the rest of their families in picking cotton. Closing of schools for blacks presented no major problem—there were few, if any, black schools. Even with all members of the family working, many Arkansans were hard put to earn enough to sustain them during the cotton-picking season and to save enough to provide food, shelter, and clothing during the winter months. I saw farmers who received less for a bale of cotton than it cost them to plant, weed, pick, and have it ginned. I remember hearing the refrain, “Tencent cotton, forty-cent meat, how in the world can a poor man eat?” I saw how the prisoner-leasing system worked. Come cotton-picking time, the local law-enforcement officials would be zealous about picking up black men in good physical condition, who might be


involved in some petty crime or misdecontinued pg 5


Top: Marching with supporters at Pine Bluff in the 1948 campaign. Bottom: Celebrating with supporters on primary night 1950 (aide and future U. S. District Judge Henry Woods is on the right).

Next Page: President Truman and McMath in the Thirty-fifth Division Reunion parade on Main Street, Little Rock, 1949. Photo by Robert S. McCord



As Sid McMath was entering the governor’s office in 1949, V. O. Key wrote in the great political treatise Southern Politics that in Arkansas more than any other state the unmet needs of the people had lain ignored for a century in the endless moil of factional strife and leaderless government. Since statehood, with only four or five exceptions, men too often viewed the governor’s office as a conquest— a prize—rather than as a great duty. They seldom felt obliged to use their power to try to relieve the hardship of people or to lay the groundwork for a better life. George Donaghey, Charles Brough, Thomas McRae and Carl Bailey had more altruistic motives and limited success, but that was about it. Donaghey and Bailey were defeated for their troubles, as McMath would be. McMath took office in January 1949 expecting to use the office to change the state dramatically and drag it into the national mainstream. He had advantages over his predecessors—good looks, youth, a fetching personal war story, unusual political and oratorical gifts, and what in the war’s wake seemed to be an awakened yearning by people for real progress and reform. All of that would take him only so far. Though close, his election in 1948 turned out to be relatively easy. Despite the overhang of the family tragedy the previous year—the death of his drunken father in a family argument at the McMath home—McMath began as the favorite in the 10-man Democratic primary. The major opponents were former Attorney General Jack Holt, the folksy radio host James “Uncle Mac” McKrell, who unloaded sacks of Martha White flour at his rallies, and Horace E. Thompson, an east Arkansas politician, college administrator and federal tax collector. Holt stirred the race issue in the first primary, continually hammering President Truman’s civil rights bill as a threat to the Bill of Rights, and in the runoff with McMath, who led the ticket, Holt ratcheted up the racial rhetoric. Ads in the newspapers and on radio demanded that McMath say where he stood “on the race issue” and specifically whether he had secretly promised to hire blacks on the State Police force and in the state Education Department. McMath

never responded, even when Holt said on the stump that McMath’s silence indicated his “true purpose” in running. Blacks had begun voting in some numbers in Democratic primaries in 1946 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Smith v. Allwright (1944) that party primaries were not private concerns but state actions and thus people could not be barred from voting in them on account of their race. The Arkansas Republican Party had expelled blacks in the 1920s and the Democratic Party declared itself officially a white-man’s party, which Gov. Homer Adkins reaffirmed even after the Allwright decision. Somehow McMath managed to corral the simultaneous support of the former governors and implacable enemies, Bailey and Adkins, the latter in spite of McMath’s obvious moderation on race. Adkins had defeated Gov. Bailey in 1940 by circulating a photograph of the dastardly Bailey actually talking to a black woman. McMath defeated Holt by a narrow 10,000 votes.

The Dixiecrat revolt After winning the nomination and before taking office, McMath had to steer Arkansas away from its natural destiny, the Dixiecrat rebellion. It required considerable political dexterity and bravado. Truman’s integration of the Army and his civil rights bill, which would have ended the poll tax and employment discrimination, produced a revolt against the president and the “northern wing” of the Democratic Party, led by Governors Ben Laney of Arkansas, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Fielding Wright of Mississippi. Southern states went to the Democratic National Convention to block Truman’s nomination and a platform that included a civil rights plank. McMath’s nomination in the primary gave him control of the party apparatus in Arkansas, including the delegation to the convention. Arkansas supported Truman at the convention, and in the fall the governorelect, without a serious Republican opponent, campaigned for the president and against the Dixiecrat ticket of Thurmond and Wright. Laney was the permanent chairman of the Dixiecrat convention at Jackson. Laney begged off going on the ticket, but he

called on the South to carry on the fight against Truman and integration until total exhaustion. Thurmond carried four Southern states. In Arkansas, Truman received 62 percent of the votes against Republican Tom Dewey, Thurmond and several minor parties. It cemented a lifelong friendship between Truman and McMath. (The embittered Laney would run against McMath in 1950 but be defeated badly. Laney boasted of his superior record as governor and ridiculed McMath’s road building. McMath put out a small pamphlet entitled The Complete Record of Ben Laney’s Four Years as Governor of Arkansas, 1944–1948, which consisted of four blank pages.)

The mud and dust Better highways and schools had been the issues in the 1948 campaign. McMath promised a massive bond issue to build paved roads in every part of the state. The other candidates came out foursquare for highways but opposed a bond issue and taxes, leaving unanswered the matter of how the roads would be paid for. Thompson promised to appoint a study committee. By reputation and historical fact, Arkansas had the worst highways in the country. Chrysler Corp. ads boasted that its vehicles were so durable they had passed “the Arkansas mud test.” Arkansas had defaulted on road bonds issued in the 1920s (the state is the only state that defaulted on its debt not once but twice) and all highway improvement halted at the beginning of the Great Depression. Owing to the absence of materials in the war, roadwork did not start again in the booming 1940s in spite of Adkins’ refunding of the old road bonds. By 1949, nothing had been done on Arkansas roads and bridges for 20 years and the sparse little highway system was deteriorating at the rate of $6 million a year. McMath and the legislature quickly put the bond issue before the voters and they approved it by a margin of 4 to 1. In the next four years, the state spent $72 million, divided equally between primary and secondary roads. The state built and improved 2,995 miles of roads. Newton County saw its first stretch of blacktop, and seven county seats



meanor. They would be jailed, then often farmed out to a cotton grower for the season. If, for any reason, this indentured servant ran away he would be brought back and punished. There was much illness, particularly during the summertime, from malaria, typhoid fever, and the usual childhood diseases. Our country doctor was a saint. He made house calls at any time, day or night, often getting out of bed regardless of the weather, rain sleet, or cold, hitch his horse and buggy, and respond to a call for help. The country doctor was frequently called to make delivery of a baby. Often, the baby would arrive ahead of the doctor, as I did. My mother had an excellent midwife, Mother Mae, my grandmother. So, another of my projects or goals, when I became governor, was to build an excellent medical school with a treating hospital, available for training and instruction, and hopefully, many of these graduating medical students would be encouraged to practice in rural areas. I was aware of the brutish horrors of the lynch mob. A popular sheriff in one county was killed and the man who killed the sheriff, or who was suspected of kill-

got their first paved connections to the highway system. Roadside parks were built. Laws were passed keeping cows and other animals off the roadways and requiring driver testing and licensing. And, as always, politics crept into the big program. Highways were promised everywhere and it was hard to deliver all of them. Contractors sought favoritism in the bidding and contracting. That and the accumulation of powerful enemies would end McMath’s career in four years. But the paved roads set off the biggest industrial expansion in the state’s history. A total of 509 industries located or expanded in Arkansas during the four years, many in small towns, and the growth would continue for another 20 years until industries began to move apparel and other low-skill jobs across the national borders.

The quest for better education Poor education was a worse if less tangible problem than antiquated roads. Arkansas had the reputation of being the least educated state in the country and there was sufficient statistical evidence of it in the percentages of people with college and high school education, enrollment, teacher salaries, and the numbers of one-room schools. A secondary education was not available to black students in much of the state, and in many rural communities primary

schooling was only an occasional opportunity. Money was an obstacle. McMath proposed a bundle of tax increases to pay for school improvements— college as well as elementary and secondary education, and a vastly expanded medical-education program. He proposed a personal income tax that would escalate to 12 percent on high incomes and also taxes on soft drinks, cigarettes and liquor, all of which the legislature rejected. (Republican Winthrop Rockefeller would offer essentially the same income tax bill 20 years later, with even worse results.) There was a movement to raise the 2 percent sales tax instead, but McMath would not sign a tax that landed so heavily on poor people. The stalemate resulted in early school closings in 1951 because schools ran out of money. In his first inaugural address, McMath called for a long-term medical education program, beginning with the construction of a new state medical center on West Markham Street, including a teaching hospital for medical and psychiatric cases. The legislature approved it but did not appropriate enough money to finish the medical center. In 1951, his second term, McMath asked for a two-cents-a-pack cigarette tax to finish the hospital, and the legislature obliged. McMath supported an initiated act by the Arkansas Education Asso-

ciation in 1948 that abolished school districts with fewer than 350 students. It had failed two years earlier but voters approved it this time. That reduced the number of independent school districts from 1,598 to 424 and spelled the end of the one-room school. Although the voters narrowly approved the consolidation act, it was unpopular in some quarters. When the county board of education in one northern county consolidated the 74 school districts into three after the act became law, one vexed patron planted two sticks of dynamite in the car of a board member. Four months into his first term, McMath’s education commissioner revealed that state funds that were supposed to go to black public schools had been diverted consistently at the local level to the white schools. The previous year, almost $4.3 million had been diverted to white schools. McMath alerted school districts that the state would sue them if the diversion continued. The state provided free textbooks for elementary grades for the first time. (Free high school textbooks would not be added until 1971.) McMath supported greater funding for Arkansas AM and N College at Pine Bluff, the state institution for black students, and the appropriation more than doubled in the 1949-50 school year. The school received full accreditation from the North Central Association before he left office.

ing him, was seized and burned at the stake, a hitching post, on the west side of the courthouse square. As governor, I proposed an antilynching bill, but heated from the smoldering fire of the Dixiecrat rebellion in 1948, it failed to pass. As a youth in Hot Springs, I observed the evils of the poll tax and how it could be a corrupting influence on the election process. It could be used as an instrument to perpetuate an illegal political empire based upon election frauds, intimidation, and the corruption of public officials. As governor, I proposed a repeal of the poll tax. It, too, failed to pass. The custom of disfranchising the black man and poor whites was too entrenched. During my two terms as governor we built more roads than any prior administration. When I became governor in 1948, 50 percent of the farms in Arkansas had no electricity. Today there are seventeen electric cooperatives supplying electricity at a reasonable cost to approximately 350,000 families in our rural areas— representing over one million people. In 1953, my lease on the Governor’s Mansion was not renewed. My lifetime friends and partners, Henry Woods and Leland Leatherman, and I formed a law firm, a people’s law firm. That is, we were advocates for people in the courtroom. Our policy was, after investigating a case thoroughly, to answer two questions: 1. Has this person been wronged?


2. Can we help him?

Top: Truman and McMath at the Little Rock airport, 1949, after

Besides roads and a new medical center, the big initiative of his first term was an election-reform bill, which ended the poll tax, set up a system of permanent voter registration and tightened the voting and counting procedures to protect against ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation and insure a secret ballot. The legislature defeated it. He also proposed a bill, which Truman had called for in 1948, to outlaw lynching and to impose harsh penalties on the vigilantes. Arkansas mobs had lynched 284 men, all but 58 of them black, since 1882. Arkansas members of Congress had consistently voted against national antilynching bills. McMath’s bill was defeated, too. Lewis Webster Jones, the president of the University of Arkansas, approached McMath, who was running for governor, in late summer of 1948 with a problem. A Hot Springs woman, Edith Irby Jones, had applied for admission to the university’s medical school. She had scored extremely high on the entrance exam. What should he do? McMath counseled him to wait until he had won the nomination in August, and then quietly admit her without publicizing it. People in Hot Springs raised money to help defray her expenses at the university. Dr. Jones became the first black graduate of the university. In 1951, McMath hosted the Southern Governors Association at Little Rock, where he made a spirited defense of President Truman. He invited his friend Harry S. Ashmore, executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette, to address the governors. Ashmore chided the governors and other Southern leaders for failing to provide leadership. He said segregation was holding back the development of a sound education system in the South. Several governors were openly resentful of McMath’s meddling.

McMath presented him with a key to the city. Middle: McMath speaking in his re-election campaign, 1950. Bottom: McMath with his wife Anne and their children, twins Patricia and Melissa and from left, Bruce, Sandy, and Phillip at the campaign announcement for governor in 1962. He would lose that campaign to Faubus.

Power for the hayseeds

Next Page: McMath giving a commencement address at the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law.



One quixotic crusade, for the electrification of the Arkansas countryside, would lead to his defeat in 1952 and the end of his political career. It would earn him the enmity of the most powerful businessman in the state, C. Hamilton Moses, president of Arkansas Power and Light Co., a subsidiary of Middle South Utilities, the largest investor-owned utility system in the country. McMath was a champion of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), the New Deal agency that was created to provide mortgage financ-

ing for rural cooperatives to build their own generating and transmission systems. Running power lines to rural homes and farms was not as profitable as city grids so the big investor-owned utilities were slow in extending power to the Arkansas countryside. But they bitterly fought government support for cooperatives and municipally owned utilities to build their own systems. Big ads in Arkansas newspapers and in magazines condemned it all as socialism. It would lead to the destruction of American freedom. The utility publicity sometimes linked the coops, usually farmers, to communism. The Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp. applied to the REA for a $10.6 million loan to build a hydroelectric generating plant on the Arkansas River at Ozark to provide power for Arkansas cooperatives and to build some 550 miles of transmission lines. McMath said electricity would improve the lives of rural families, especially women. He attended cooperative meetings around the state and lobbied President Truman to have the REA make the grant. The loan came through but the project needed the approval of the state Public Service Commission, which had been hostile to cooperatives since the REA program’s inception. But McMath appointed all three commissioners, who approved the project. Arkansas Power and Light Co. instituted a lawsuit to block the project, and the chancellor and the Arkansas Supreme Court sided with the utility. McMath sought to get the law changed in the legislature to make it perfectly clear the project was suitable, but Moses’ men in the legislature blocked it, too. Three years after McMath left office, the coops maneuvered the legislature and Governor Faubus to remove the obstacles and the big plant and the transmission grid were built. Stopping the REA project in 195152 was not enough. AP and L settled scores with McMath for good. Moses’ friends in the legislature set up an audit commission to look into rumors of favoritism and backscratching in the big highway program. Audit commissioners tended to be friends of Moses. A grand jury was convened and indicted several people. No one went to prison, but “the highway scandal,” as it came to be called, blemished McMath’s shiny image as a reformer. McMath ran for a third term in 1952. Only one governor had ever won a third term. His opponents

were a silver-haired chancellor from northeast Arkansas, the attorney general, his old foe Jack Holt and a noisy congressman from southwest Arkansas. Cherry reached a runoff and defeated McMath handily in the runoff. U.S. Senator John L. McClellan, who shared a law office with Moses in Little Rock, came down from Washington and campaigned for Cherry and boasted about the triumph on election night. The power company had enjoyed a special relationship with the senior senator from Arkansas since before the Great Depression, at considerable cost to the people. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approached Sen. Joe T. Robinson, the majority leader of the Senate, in 1933 about building dams on the Arkansas River for a giant hydroelectric and industrial development project. Robinson went back to Arkansas and asked Harvey C. Couch, who headed AP and L before Ham Moses. Couch said no, that he didn’t want to compete with the cheap hydro power the government would produce. Sen. Cordell Hull of Tennessee said he would love to have it on the Tennessee rivers. It became the Tennessee Valley Authority. For 75 years, power has been far cheaper in the TVA region to Arkansas’s east than in Arkansas. Two years after his defeat, McMath, running this time with no financial support, opposed McClellan when he ran for a third six-year term. McClellan, with heavy help from Moses’ utility, won by 37,000 votes. McMath’s one-time acolyte, Orval Faubus, defeated Gov. Cherry and AP and L in the same election. Three years later, when Faubus grabbed hold of the race issue to bolster his sagging political fortunes by using National Guard troops to prevent the integration of Central High School, McMath rose as a critic. When word circulated that President Eisenhower would send federal troops, reportedly the 101st Airborne, to Little Rock to stop the defiance, McMath called Vice President Nixon and asked him to urge the president to use a sizable force of federal marshals instead of soldiers to enforce the law to avoid stirring Southern memories of federal occupation. In 1962, McMath made his last race, this time against Faubus. He said Faubus’s fruitless stand against integration had halted the state’s progress. He and four other candidates fell 12,000 votes short of forcing the governor into a runoff.

T RIAL L AW Y ER S The concept of freedom, equality of opportunity and dignity for all citizens is the basis and bulwark of our national pride and our nation’s strength. America’s passion for equal justice is the unifying force that binds us together. However, experience teaches us that these human rights are not secure if they cannot be made good by a lawyer in a court of law. A judge cannot hand down a decision righting a wrong or doing justice until that case is prepared and presented to the court by a lawyer. A jury cannot return a verdict redressing a grievance or resolving a dispute until that case is prepared and presented to the jury by a lawyer. It is true that lawyers and our judicial system are low in public confidence and esteem in our country. This ill repute has been brought on in large measure by bad lawyers and incompetent judges. While we wait for the legal profession to discipline its own and put its own house in order, let us be aware of the great majority of lawyers and judges who faithfully serve. Those who would “kill the lawyers: need find replacements. Who will protect the poor, the injured, the victims of negligence and discrimination? Who will be the champions of those victims of corporate abuse or bureaucratic tyranny. Our judicial system makes it possible for our diverse, complex democratic society to function. As long as we have an independent judiciary who, hopefully, won their spurs in the courtroom before ascending the bench, so long as we have the “12 good men and true” and so long as we have trial lawyers, throughout the width and breadth of our land, in small communities and great cities, who stand ready to do combat and to spill their blood on the courtroom floor for their clients – rich or poor, black or white, whatever their persuasion – our rights as American citizens will be secure. I am proud to be a lawyer. I am proud to be a trial lawyer. My dues are paid. I am looking forward with optimism and high expectations to the trials, challenges and adventures of the future “wherever the road may trend.”



- Sid McMath closing argument, Brinegar vs. San Ore Construction Company

Having been harshly chastised by the voters and broke, McMath left the Capitol in January 1953 to begin a third career, opening a law firm at Little Rock with his old friends and confederates in the governing business, Henry Woods and Leland F. Leatherman. Woods had run McMath’s campaigns and been his chief of staff. He would become a legendary personalinjury lawyer and a mainstay in the firm until President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench for the Eastern District of Arkansas in 1980, at the request of Sen. Dale Bumpers. Leatherman, a GI buddy in the postwar political revolt in Hot Springs, had served as McMath’s chairman of the state Public Service Commission in a way that had dismayed Arkansas Power and Light Co., which was accustomed to the tender embrace of state regulators. Gov. Francis Cherry promptly replaced Leatherman and he joined McMath’s practice. Though it didn’t seem financially promising in the seat of Arkansas commerce, they decided they would only represent working people, consumers and sometimes small businesses— people who were injured or wronged somehow. The exception was the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp., for which Leatherman was general counsel for 35 years. McMath and Woods made a formidable team, Woods as a digger of evidence and scholar on negligence (his book Comparative Fault became a universal textbook on that area of tort law) and McMath for his powerful eloquence in front of a jury. McMath’s extemporaneous oration at Woods’s funeral in 2002, when McMath was 90 and blind, was an unforgettable moment for those who were there. U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson muttered at the end of it that he would be satisfied to go ahead and

perish if he knew that McMath would deliver his eulogy. McMath and Woods became early members of the Inner Circle of Advocates, a prestigious organization of plaintiff’s lawyers that admits only two lawyers in active practice from each state. Toward the end of his career McMath was elected president of the International Trial Lawyers Academy. The McMath Woods legal legacy lives on in a firm that bears their names, where two of McMath’s sons practice, as well as in the practice of his oldest son, Sandy, who now has his own firm. While the firm has branched into consumer and environmental law, in addition to personal injury, the ethos of the practice remains the same. This is reflected not only in the practice but in the members’ participation in public and civic affairs as illustrated by partners Sam Ledbetter and Will Bond, both former state representatives. Bond is chairman of the state Democratic Party while Ledbetter serves on the state Board of Education. McMath’s autobiography began as a book about the achievements of the practice that he and Woods founded, illustrated by cases “that made a difference.” While these became an appendix to Promises Kept, the original intent indicated the import McMath placed on his legal legacy.

Though it didn’t seem financially promising in the seat of Arkansas commerce, they decided they would only represent working people, consumers and sometimes small businesses— people who were injured or wronged somehow. In the 60 years after the founding of their firm, McMath, Woods and their successors played a material role in the expansion of personal-injury and consumer law, establishing precedents that have shaped tort law in Arkansas and the United States. If Republicans and the United States Chamber of Commerce want one scapegoat in their campaign to roll back or halt personal-injury and malpractice judgments and settlements, the McMath Woods firm would be a good one, as a few examples illustrate:

· In 1958, McMath and Woods won a suit that for the first time gave women the right to receive damages for the loss of relationship with their spouses in injury and wrongful death case. Until then, only men could recover damages for the loss of companionship. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the decision, and the common law spread to all the other states. · In 1969, McMath and Woods sued a construction firm building a dam on the Arkansas River at Pine Bluff for a 23-year-old worker whose spine was severed when a small motorboat he was on was ordered to go through a rapidly closing flood gate, capsizing the boat. The company insisted that it was a mere workers compensation case and that the paralyzed man was not a crewman of a navigable vessel under U.S. maritime law. Prevailing on both issues, McMath implored the jury in closing to “let justice flow like a mighty river.” It did, awarding $1 million in damages, at that time the largest admiralty personal injury verdict in federal court. · In 1971, the firm successfully prosecuted a lawsuit against Western Auto Stores for negligently selling a gun to an escaped killer, who promptly used it to injure one man and kill two others, whom he kidnapped and executed in the woods outside Rogers, establishing that a violation of a federal statute (the Gun Control Act of 1968) was evidence of negligence in a tort case for which a seller might be liable. · The case of Johnson v. AP&L involved the mysterious death of a house painter. McMath, with son Phillip and partner Mart Vehik, through expert medical and engineering testimony relying upon a subsequent similar accident at the same location, proved that the death was caused by electrocution from a negligently maintained power line. It became a leading case on the admissibility of subsequent accidents to prove proximate cause. · In 1979, the firm, with Sandy McMath as the lead counsel, established that under Arkansas law a jury could decide whether General Motors was at fault for the permanent disability of a young woman left quadriplegic when a racing Pontiac Firebird Trans Am spun out of control and crashed. The young woman’s suit established a precedent for “negligent inducement”


— Sid McMath

Right: The Sidney S. McMath Building is the home of McMath Woods P.A. and is located at 711 West Third Street in Little Rock.

by a corporation, the basis of tobacco lawsuits 20 year later. The Firebird Trans Am was the car in which Burt Reynolds performed spectacular feats at tremendous speeds in the cult mov-

ing plant—ultimately contaminating a large area of groundwater. The state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission and the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued warnings

ie “Smokey and the Bandit.” Evidence was presented that GM had approved the script of the movie and encouraged dealers to show movie clips of the car doing daring maneuvers at high speeds, and that the clips had been shown to the 18-year-old boy at the time of the vehicles purchase a few weeks before the accident. · In 1982, Bruce and Phillip McMath on behalf of the estate of young Mark Brown, killed when a Missouri Pacific freight train struck his vehicle at a crossing at Prescott, obtained the first punitive-damage award against a railroad for failing to install active warning devices. The railroad had a conscious policy not to spend corporate money to install such devices, so the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to set the verdict aside. The case established that punitive damages were recoverable in Arkansas in a wrongful death case. · Victories in suits against nursing homes in the 1970s and 1980s—notably for the family of an elderly man who was parboiled when he was left unattended in a hot whirlpool bath and for a young woman who was semi-comatose when she was raped in her bed by a nursing home worker—pioneered nursing home liability based upon inadequate staffing and employment standards. This led Sandy McMath to found and then Chair the American Trial Lawyers Association’s Nursing Home Victims’ Litigation Group teaching other lawyers how to win such cases. · The firm sued Tyson Foods, Inc., in 1987 for overloading the Green Forest, Arkansas, sewage treatment plant with wastes from its chicken-process-

for years but did little until Bruce and Phillip McMath, partner Sam Ledbetter and a Rogers lawyer, Jim Lingle, sued. The trial resulted in an award of damages and a finding that Tyson had repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act. Earlier, in a case spearheaded by partner Winslow Drummond, the law firm had prosecuted Hercules for pollution around the Vertac Chemical Plant in Jacksonville. The firm has since sought remedies and compensation for neighborhoods against polluting industries in El Dorado, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Saline County and Coffeeville, Kan. Most recently, Will Bond, Sam Ledbetter, and Neil Chamberlin obtained a jury award in excess of $1.4 million on behalf of eight families after an industrial explosion forced them to temporarily evacuate their homes in Saline County. · Sandy and Phillip McMath and Mountain Home lawyer Roy Danuser, brought a libel action against The Sun, a Canadian tabloid newspaper, for a 1990 article that carried a picture of 95-year-old Nellie Mitchell of Mountain Home over a headline that said, “World’s Oldest Newspaper Carrier, 101, Quits Because She Is Pregnant.” Having seen an earlier article about the elderly newspaper carrier, the newspaper, assuming she was dead, concocted the story about her quitting because she was pregnant. The jury awarded her $1.5 million, part of which Nellie used to create a scholarship fund for youngsters who had worked delivering newspapers. · In 1993, a federal jury awarded $10.65 million, including $3 million in punitive damages, to 23 South Arkansas tomato farmers whose crops

IN MEMORIUM McMath Woods P.A. honors past partners and associates whose dedication helped create the firm we know today.

Clockwise from top left: Judge Henry Woods, Leland Leatherman, Winslow Drummond, Paul Harrison

Blind, but still seeing. Sidney S. McMath

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were damaged by a defective fungicide. Tried by Bruce McMath and Little Rock lawyer Evans Benton, the verdict was the first against DuPont on the product and paved the way for hundreds of suits against the company from Florida to Hawaii. · The firm pioneered the concept of tobacco litigation on behalf of public entities with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1991, two years before Mississippi and Florida filed the first claims. But, Arkansas officials declined to initiate suits until years later. · In 2006, Will Bond, Sam Ledbetter and Bruce McMath obtained a $6.5 million verdict for the estate of an Army private who, sitting down to rest against an unused latrine after a long training march at Fort Benning Ga., was electrocuted. The jury found the maintenance contractor, Shaw Industries, shared the fault for the incident with the Army. · Most recently, Bruce McMath and Neil Chamberlin succeeded in arguing that elements of the Civil Justice Reform Act of 2003, intended to reduce plaintiff recoveries in personal injury cases by assigning fault to persons and entities not party to the suit, was unconstitutional. McMath concluded his legal career in his eighties, representing Arkansas families whose children were believed to have suffered brain damage from the diphtheria element of the childhood DTP vaccine. Although Japanese vaccine manufacturers had developed a less reactive vaccine, American children continued to get a cheaper whole-cell version. McMath, working with a few other lawyers around the country, son Bruce and associate Sandra Sanders, sought to hold the producers liable. Under pressure from the suits, the vaccine manufacturers sought legislation to avoid liability. While they received limited immunity, it came with the Vaccine Compensation Act, which established a way to compensate injured children and the adoption of a safer vaccine. In his memoir, Promises Kept, McMath concludes with a warning about the forces that are inundating the media with stories about massive and unjustified punitive-damage awards. Punitive awards by juries are fairly rare, he said, but are justified when businesses flagrantly and willfully endanger people. In a free market economy, accountability for one’s commercial conduct is essential, he said. In all three of his careers, the central theme in McMath’s life was service to the common good.

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