June 28, 2021
With Bill Clinton as a two-term president, Hillary as about everything but president, and a couple of other shining lights, Arkansas always hopes to overlook the fact that it continually is in a contest with Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana for the bottom of every heap, as well as the scars of the 1957 school crisis and the contradictions of Orval Faubus as a multi-term governor. Unfortunately, the state just can’t catch a break it seems, especially with its inability to ever sort out its confusion and consternation about everything that has to do with race. The latest examples are all bungled up around CRT or critical race theory, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times 1619 Project, Walter Hussman, Jr., the rich publishing magnate in the state, and sundry bit players.
Hussman is a controversial figure in Arkansas. His family upset the applecart when their second-ranked daily newspaper managed to gobble up the historic, prize-winning Arkansas Gazette, the self-proclaimed oldest paper west of the Mississippi. Though years ago, you can’t talk to old Gazette hands and veterans without them ready in a heartbeat to spit out his name in bitter memories. Life goes on, but people don’t forget, and, tragically, that’s also true about the stains of racism.
Recently, the blood-red Republican legislators have been yelping about the damage that would be done to precious children’s minds if they were to understand the way the history of slavery had damaged the state and the nation. Ernie Dumas, the dean of Arkansas journalism, shared with me a coming column in the Arkansas Times, that dredged up that very history, writing…
For lawmakers like Senator Mark Johnson to say that it is unprecedented and unfair to emphasize the great battles to conquer discrimination and repression and to suggest that racial bigotry was barely consequential if at all is, in a word, foolish. His father, the late Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson, who boasted that he sort of masterminded the historic school-integration crisis at Little Rock, built a career on the issue of race. Here is a good place to recite a few of his famous utterances, recorded in the state press, but let only one suffice: “I am opposed to rape and murder and would speak out against them, and the greatest crime, even above these, is integration.”
Seems like only yesterday, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile publisher Hussman, who has made a bundle with his news wheeling and dealing, has managed to carry the flag forward as well into more controversy around race. Hussman’s paper isn’t really a paper, since it is read and distributed on an iPad, except for Sunday, which he prints in order to make money carrying inserts, but I digress. He is now the major figure in the controversial decision by the board of the august University of North Carolina to overturn the tenure offer to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who masterminded and oversaw the 1619 Project, which is now being widely studied in schools and universities around the country. Hussman, trying to claim a unique perspective because he read every word of the 1619 piece, took it upon himself to send letters to the UNC trustees, where he is also a graduate, as is Hannah-Jones, cautioning them about 1619’s use of race as a lens for American history. It’s worth noting that he has also pledged $25 million to the journalism school which bears his name, although calling him a journalist would still rile professionals in Arkansas. His letters have also led Hannah-Jones’ lawyers to take offense and make it clear to UNC that without tenure, she will not join the faculty, fearing bad faith in any evaluation because of Hussman.
This has been a mess that has gotten wide attention as UNC professors, casual observers, and tons of others have sided with Hannah-Jones and the inherent discrimination against her work and viewpoints in this affair. Academic freedom pales when race is involved. Hussman is keeping quiet, as his letters have been revealed, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he has now managed to join the local Arkansas ruling political class and drench Arkansas in more shame by reviving questions about whether issues