Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

EDITORIALS>>A profile in courage

The brave on the battlefield will find their heroism acknowledged by medals and commendations, but unusual courage in politics may have to wait on the accumulation of time and wisdom for its recognition. That was the case for Ray S. Smith Jr., who died last weekend at the age of 83.

Smith served for a generation in the state House of Representatives from Hot Springs. He was a tireless champion of good government, education and progressive taxation and, for most of his career, a remarkably effective one. When Gov. Winthrop Rockefellerís mammoth program of income, sales and excise taxes collapsed in 1969, Smith, who knew the Houseís possibilities better than anyone, cobbled together a modest program to save state services and maneuvered it through the legislature.

But Ray Smithís public character was tested and formed a decade earlier in the most dangerous time in which someone could serve in public life in the 20th century. It was during the integration crisis at Little Rock in 1958 and Gov. Orval E. Faubus, who had achieved demigod status, had summoned the legislature to a special session to give him dictatorial powers over the public schools of Arkansas. He wanted authority to block the desegregation of schools wherever he wanted: to close schools that the courts ordered desegregated and move tax funds to private all-white schools. (He would use the power almost instantly to close all the high schools in Little Rock, but the courts blocked him from funding a white private school with tax dollars.) With rebel yells ringing across the House chamber, the legislature passed the program easily. The key bill passed the House and Senate by a combined vote of 127 to 1.

Young Ray Smith was the one.

On other bills to enforce segregation and punish teachers and anyone on a public payroll who might have different ideas, two or three others occasionally joined Smith. His votes at the time were not viewed as heroic but obstinate. The abiding fear was that voters would turn on any dissenter. But Smith, a World War II veteran, knew something about danger. He had been in Hot Springs when the returning veterans, led by Sid McMath, threw out the corrupt political machine. Hot Springs voters never punished Smith. He went on to serve 28 years.

His bravery and independence would not go unpunished at the Capitol. In 1965 nearly all the members of the House had signed pledges making him the speaker for the 1965-66 General Assembly, a ritual that goes on every two years. But Faubus would not have the man who had bearded him with his votes presiding over the House while he was governor. On the first day of the session, a score of House members stared solemnly at their desks as they pushed the button to renege on their word and elect the man that Faubus had put up at the last minute. Some went to Smith and asked his forgiveness. Smith would be elected speaker unanimously six years later when Dale Bumpers became governor.

Thus was Ray Smith not left a prophet without honor in his own tribe. He retired with the high estimation of his colleagues. But there was never a public acknowledgement that at the most pivotal moment of the century for the state, one man and one only of those charged with the duty did the right thing.