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Letter from the Land of Opportunity

Except for Alabama and Mississippi no state has a worse reputation than Arkansas. For many the very name conjures images of slack-jawed Ozark hill apes, scrofulous swamp-dwelling rednecks, and hookworm-plagued darkies with chains on their ankles and whip scars across their backs. Besides football, the local amusements are assumed to be moonshine drinking, incest, nigger baiting, and hippie hunting as seen in Easy Rider and other versions of the late Sixties grail legend.

So most people are less than astonished that Grant Cooper, a self-described communist history teacher at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is being hounded out of his job. But it is not being done as believers in the popular version of the state might imagine. There are no Slim Pickens types circling the campus in pickups and Cooper is in less physical danger than he would be as a stranger on Saturday night in a local bar.

The firing of an assistant professor for political reasons is news only because it confirms what people expect in Arkansas. In Des Moines, Salt Lake City, or Hartford the job would be done more smoothly, and if Little Rock were not an international symbol of backwardness, Cooper would be just another idealistic young fool out of a job. So while the particulars of Cooper’s case all have to do with Arkansas, a unique blend of irony, outrage, and buffoonery, the broader implications are all-American.

In July, 1973, Grant Cooper began telling his classes that he was a member of the Progressive Labor party and would be teaching history from a “communist” point of view. The announcement did not astonish his students. Cooper had been teaching at the university for three years, the general slant of his politics was well known, and UALR is a commuter school attended largely by working students who have no time for or interest in campus politics. Cooper seems to have been reasonably popular with students, and respected for his sincerity and non-dogmatic manner, neither of which is over-abundant at UALR.

Hardly anyone in Little Rock had ever heard of the Progressive Labor party. There are now only three admitted members in the state. So the relative standing of PL among left parties was not and is not an issue. What the PL line is and how it differs from more fashionable or respectable organizations is not clear even to those of us who have made an effort to find out. From Cooper’s public statements one can only conclude, first, that it is at once as broad as the Arkansas River and as narrowly tortuous as a cowpath, and, second, that every communist government now holding power is “revisionist,” even Mao’s, which PL once espoused. The party newspaper, Challenge, combines strident rhetoric with reformist zeal.

Cooper himself is anything but strident. In public he often seems embarrassed and almost reluctant to give pointed answers to direct questions. Asked the inevitable question about the violent overthrow of the US government, he is more likely to quote Abe Lincoln and begin a halting lecture on the history of violence against the American labor movement than to offer a slogan. The only outdoor meeting he has addressed was organized in his defense partly by a thirty-year-old student active in the Arkansas Republican party; Cooper’s most inflammatory statement was:

What we must work for is an organization which will immediately give us some voice in running the school and eventually enable us to take control of it.

Apparently, however, his announcement provoked complaints, and he was warned by his chairman and his dean to stop using that word. Cooper discussed the problem with colleagues of varying persuasions and decided last fall to settle for “Marxist,” a compromise he thought would preserve his integrity while giving the students here, who tend to be deferential toward authority, a clear issue on which to challenge him, and would allow those who feared having their ears turned to stone to quit the course.

That should have been the end of it. But for reasons best known to himself, Ed Gran, a John Birch Society member in the physics department, tipped off his protĂŠgĂŠs at Essence, the UALR right-wing underground newspaper, that the Bill of Rights was being infringed on campus. Essence, whose editorial position is a mixture of Ayn Rand and Rudyard Kipling, ran the story in September. How foolish of Chancellor G. Robert Ross to be afraid of a mere word, they editorialized, and urged other faculty members to be open about their ideological commitments so that students could know what they were getting.

Ross denied having given any orders, as did Cooper’s dean. But the chairman of the history department confirmed having received and transmitted a warning to Cooper. This “Who’s on first” routine has been typical of the way the university officials have behaved.

Soon the state’s widely respected Pulitzer-Prize-winning daily the Arkansas Gazette decided that the politics of an assistant professor were front page news. It reprinted most of the Essence article and added a new slant, which may be summarized as: “UALR Prof Admits Communist Leanings; Administration Hush Up Fails.” The Democrat, Little Rock’s evening paper, picked it up, TV cameras arrived, and the show was on.

The Gazette, you may remember, was the paper Martha Mitchell used to telephone when she got loaded and wanted Senator Fulbright “crucified,” in the old days, before she started getting beat up. Which shows how out of touch she was. The Gazette is almost shrilly liberal, and, except for his civil rights record, considers Fulbright as an eminence somewhere between Cicero and John the Baptist. Why one of the best newspapers in the South made front page news of Cooper puzzles many people, among them several members of the staff. Cynics have alleged that the paper tends to take holier-than-thou editorial positions that have great emotional but small actual impact on the state.

But the Gazette has stood up to opportunistic politicians in the past, most notably in the 1957 integration crisis at Central High, and it knows news when it sees it. Once the issue was raised it became the number one topic of discussion all over the state, just edging out Razorback football. To begin with, Cooper is a native of Little Rock. His father, W. G. Cooper, Jr., is a prominent surgeon who has been a member of the UALR Board of Visitors ever since it was known as Little Rock Junior College, a private, segregated institution. The only endowed chair in the school is the W. G. Cooper, Jr., Professor of English. A large fountain in front of the Student Union is named for the young historian’s mother. The school’s biggest literary award is named for Grant’s younger brother Richard, a Bronx physician who is also a member of PL. Altogether the family has donated about $250,000 to UALR over the years. Not a small proportion of the public hostility toward Cooper arises because his family is rich.

Arkansas is in the middle of the Bible Belt, and many of the poor people in the state are proudly independent white Protestants, equally scornful of great wealth and of charity. PL is unlikely to win converts in a state where labor unions are actively opposed by much of the working class. Blacks may be more receptive to the kinds of arguments Cooper makes, but not to communism by name, or to white college professors. For both groups the first two words of the slogan “Godless Atheistic Communism” are very upsetting. Even so, many who have written to the newspapers demanding that Cooper be fired have also praised his “guts” for admitting his beliefs. But they do not want to pay for them.

There is the further possibility that the Coopers could be the first father-son team in constitutional law casebooks. The elder Cooper was president of the Little Rock School Board during the 1957 integration battle that put the city on the map. He is the Cooper of Cooper vs Aaron, one of the few unanimously signed Supreme Court decisions in American history, in which the justices repudiated the board’s claim that it could not comply with Brown vs Board of Education because “public hostility” made it too dangerous; the Court pointed out that Orval Faubus and the Arkansas legislature had deliberately provoked this hostility.

When Orval Faubus closed the Little Rock schools in 1958, young Grant spent the tenth grade at Hot Springs High and was then packed off to Exeter, and ultimately to Penn, where he earned his PhD—a background that has been the subject of much amateur psychoanalyzing in Little Rock, where most of the educated people either know one another or have friends in common. Cooper himself does not want to talk about his family or about personal matters generally. (It often seemed to me early in the controversy that his politics compelled him to be a more public figure than his private inclinations would have led him to be.) Since December he has hardly made a public statement except at his trial, which was not, after all, his idea.

Once Cooper’s beliefs were published a different sort of person was heard from. In early October, twenty-three patriots from the state legislature, led by Representatives Bobby Glover of Carlisle and Frank Henslee of Pine Bluff, both aggressively and self-consciously proletarian in manner, emulated their hero the Fightin’ Judge of Alabama and volunteered to “Stand Up for America.” Crowding closely together for the TV cameras, all twenty-three showed up in Chancery Court and filed a civil suit to have Cooper’s pay stopped under a battery of antediluvian state laws designed to prevent Arkansas’s falling prey to internal subversion by the Communist party. While denying that they were threatening anyone, they agreed that it would be better to go into special session and cut off the university’s funds than to allow Cooper to teach the second semester.

That did not happen, but only because the Senate was reluctant to deal with a few other touchy issues and refused to convene. In January, however, the House met for one hour, for the sole purpose of giving “The Arkansas 23” a chance to denounce the Red Menace and to adopt by 78-3 a resolution denouncing Cooper and demanding his removal. Voting against were the three black members. Neither of the two legislators who are members of the UALR political science department showed up.

Henslee was formerly a brakeman and conductor on the Cotton Belt Railroad and represents a white working-class area of Pine Bluff known as “Dollarway.” He is best known for having introduced George Wallace to the combined House and Senate last year to celebrate his recovery from gunshot wounds. The legislators showed their enthusiasm by standing on their desks and “calling the hogs,” that is, shouting the “Woo Pig Sooie” chant of the UA Razorback football team, after which Wallace presented Governor Dale Bumpers with a Red Hog plaque.

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