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 protégés 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.

Senator John “Mutt” Gibson, another member of the twenty-three, has been noted mainly for the day a couple of years ago when he introduced a bill making dog owners legally responsible for the depredations of their pets. Since the chamber was in high dudgeon on the day of the vote, and the subject was dogs, the bill was not shouted down. Rather it was barked, woofed, growled, and howled down, with some of the more playful lawmakers making a great show of getting down on all fours and lifting their legs against their desks.

Those readers who have taken an interest in the “New Breed” of southern governors will recognize something familiar in Dale Bumpers’s handling of Cooper’s case. After Bobby Glover announced that he had gotten a letter of “wholehearted” support from Bumpers for the resolution to fire Cooper, Decisive Dale’s office issued a statement to the effect that he had read only the last sentence of the resolution where it urged that “appropriate action be taken,” but not the “Whereas” portions which defined that action.

Probably it was the prospect of two or four more years of issues like this one that induced Bumpers to make what Fulbright supporters here regard as an almost treasonous run for the US Senate. Until someone demonstrates that “liberal” governors of states like Arkansas can initiate anything more than tepidly superficial reforms and still survive, ambitious publicity seekers like Bumpers are going to continue to use the office as little more than a means of appearing on television. His state ranks forty-ninth in teachers’ salaries and fiftieth in per capita spending for education; rumors circulate about another fetid scandal in the state’s notorious prison system; HEW has rejected his administration’s desegregation plan for higher education. Bumpers is probably correct in guessing that government by face has a safer future in the Senate.

Bumpers has a modest genius for letting everyone think he agrees with them without saying much. In four years he has progressed all the way from the Charleston, Arkansas, School Board through two terms as governor without ever, it seems, discussing a serious issue during a campaign. In the past Fulbright has been able to come back to the state in coveralls every six years, hunker down in soybean fields, and explain himself with disarming clarity. Now, in spite of superior organization and the backing of most of the courthouse pols around the state, he is in worse trouble than ever. To win he will have to make Bumpers discuss issues, which neither Orval Faubus nor Winthrop Rockefeller could ever get him to do. Unless the polls are very far off or he can make a dramatic recovery, Fulbright will probably lose the election. The Gazette and many other papers around the state are backing Fulbright. But since they have also been speculating on how Bumpers might be nominated for the presidency in 1976, their appeals sound thin.

Faubus himself is running for governor again. While he has not got much chance of winning against former Democratic Congressman David Pryor, he was expected to add Cooper to the usual list of villians he denounces (even though he was himself unsuccessfully Red-baited twenty years ago for allegedly attending a now defunct “communist” college in Mena, Arkansas, during the Thirties). This he has done, but not until after the “liberals,” Pryor and Bumpers, flatly promised that Cooper would teach no more. Fulbright has called his hiring “a possible mistake.”

Meanwhile attempts to put Cooper behind bars have not succeeded. Henslee and his group put pressure on the Little Rock prosecutor to do so. But a last minute flurry, of midnight phone calls is said to have induced them to back off from their threat to sue the prosecutor for nonperformance of duty and to settle for his intervening in the civil suit on their side. Evidently someone decided that in view of Bumpers’s national ambitions a predawn arrest for Thoughtcrime might be going a little far.

Cooper’s trial took place on February 20 and 21, and consisted of a political interrogation. Counsel for the plaintiffs was Representative Art Givens, whose rhetorical style is similar to that of Billy Graham. Taken aback when Cooper failed to deny his membership in PL, Givens was unprepared to discuss the constitutional issues. His most damaging evidence had been cunningly assembled from the front page of the Gazette, copies of which he flourished as if they were lists of known communists on the faculty. He gravely introduced a tape recording of a TV talk show in which an account of Cooper’s opinions had been broadcast statewide. After being overruled in an attempt to make Cooper provide a list of all faculty members with whom he had discussed politics, Givens seemed to run out of steam, which was just as well, Cooper having responded that a list of those he had not spoken to would be much shorter.

At the end of March the judge decided against Cooper, holding that he had violated the law against advocating the overthrow of the government and another against being a communist in state employ. Because both offenses are felonies under Arkansas law, he recommended criminal prosecution, which could mean a sentence of up to ten years in jail. More recently the university trustees, while instructing their counsel to appeal on constitutional grounds, declined to request a stay of execution pending an appeal. After fifteen minutes of oral argument the Arkansas Supreme Court refused a stay to Cooper’s lawyers, in effect barring him from the classroom and cutting off his pay while the case drags on. That may take a long time. Not much can be expected from any state court. As recently as 1966 the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld an anti-evolution statute and convicted a Central High biology teacher for violating it.

To their credit, the university officials have permitted Cooper to continue teaching, without salary. His students have collected enough money to match the one pay check he’s missed so far.* But since last September the UALR’s administrators have been playing a nasty if farcical game with Cooper. In November, after a private meeting of the trustees, they declared that he was “non-reappointed effective May 1975.” The chancellor’s office issued a list of “reasons” why, including a two-year-old student opinion survey abandoned after one semester when it was characterized as incompetently designed by a unanimous vote of the psychology department; most of the faculty, including Cooper’s dean, refused to use it. As usual, when this survey was originally proposed solemn vows were made that it would never be used in matters of hiring and firing. Even then the students had rated Cooper “above average,” just not so far above as some others.

Aside from this and another discredited “survey,” six vague charges of “incompetence” were made against Cooper, all of them depending exclusively on testimony of administrative functionaries. Cooper’s colleagues in the history department were pointedly excluded from giving their views, according to W.A. Owings, a department member and president of the local AAUP chapter, which has passed an almost unanimous resolution of support. Owings is a retired air force intelligence officer who calls himself a “Goldwater Republican.”

Hardly anyone could believe Chancellor Ross’s claim that Cooper was not fired for his politics after a small paper called the Arkansas Advocate printed in November a transcript of a “fact-finding discussion” between him and Cooper. Ross used a self-contradictory AAUP document from the Fifties, called “Academic Freedom and Tenure and the Quest for National Security,” to charge Cooper with “political conspiracies to deceive students and lead them unwittingly into acceptance of dogmas or false causes.”

Ross then tried to make Cooper confess that he suppressed all except communist facts and theories in his teaching, and forced students to adhere to a party line. All of which Cooper denied (Ross offered no proof and many students have testified to the contrary). Ross concluded by saying:

It seems to me that what’s potentially in conflict, or is in conflict, is that you’re choosing a point of view that isn’t the institutional point of view to teach history from, and that is what I’m saying to you. Can you adjust from that now?

When Cooper said that he could not, the discussion was over. After the AAUP asked Ross to meet with them and explain himself, his office responded that he would be happy to, as soon as he returned from a two-week conference of educational bigshots in Bucharest, Rumania.

Ross now says that the “institutional point of view,” which hardly seems accidental in context, has been misunderstood. Perhaps so, but since most teachers understand the unspoken rules of the game better than Grant Cooper, we may never find out what he did mean. Whether university bureaucrats intend it or not, cases like Cooper’s have their uses. (Incidentally the committees described in the faculty hand-book to hear appeals did not in fact exist before Cooper was fired; evidently no one has ever been “non-reappointed” for bad teaching here before.)

Should not Cooper be seen as a victim of the repressive buffoonery we expect in Arkansas? The matter is not so simple. Many teachers in America work under conditions that are almost as repressive, one way or the other. A sophisticated administration would have sensed Cooper’s drift and removed him some time ago if he threatened to become popular; and more than likely he would have been removed with the complicity of the faculty. But PL is going nowhere in this state, and there is, after all, something refreshing about the crudity displayed by Arkansas public figures. No one here is going to be deluded into thinking they have the kind of freedom that many of the dead or psychologically number veterans of the radical politics of the late Sixties once thought they had.

UALR is growing. It is the only urban public campus in the state and therefore the only place where students (blacks and rednecks included) can make a living and go to school at the same time. Enrollment increased by 13 percent last fall. And yet Chancellor Ross has repeatedly declared himself an admirer of the Carnegie Commission Report urging that in higher education tuition be doubled, and the sciences and liberal arts be cut back in favor of cheap vocational training for corporate jobs. Which is only consistent. If public universities are to be turned into laboratories for the manufacture of ethical androgynes, enthusiasts like Cooper are clearly expendable.

A last note. The Arkansas Gazette, in an editorial urging UALR to protect what academic reputation it has by keeping Cooper on, argued that he would make a fine “pet, as it were…of the system.” In view of the Gazette’s record on civil liberties, this was perhaps intended to be a joke. But one way or the other, things do get stated clearly in Arkansas.

  1. *

    Both the Fayetteville and UALR chapters of AAUP are also taking up collections. Three students at Fayetteville have been threatened with expulsion by the administration for collecting money for Cooper on grounds that his salary is a political issue.