Malvern citizens have long history of civil rights activism

Joshua Waddles
Staff Writer

Philander Smith College acted as a hub for many civil rights activities in Arkansas during the fight to end segregation.

Edward Green, a Malvern resident and graduate of Wilson, attended Philander Smith College from 1959 to 1963.  He said there were so many things happening in the area that students naturally ended up participating, either voluntarily or sometimes getting dragged into it.

He said students at Philander Smith College were involved in various sit ins. One incident that stuck out in his mind was a sit in with himself and a group of other students at a segregated cafeteria. He and the other students were arrested for refusing to leave and Green spent a night in jail.

“An anxious night,” said Green.

He said they were bailed out the next day and didn’t have to go to court over it.

Green said his involvement in activism was a broad subject. After college, he worked as a biology teacher in Malvern from 1963-1965.  He said he hadn’t intended to be a teacher, but he was offered the job and his friends told him he’d be crazy not to accept. He said his years teaching were some of the most fulfilling work of his life, and a necessary stage for him to go through for a number of different reasons. And he liked how he came full circle, graduating from Wilson and coming back to Malvern to work as a teacher with families.

Over his careers, he became the first African American man to do several things. After teaching, he moved to St. Louis and worked at his dream job as a scientific biology researcher at St. Louis University. He wanted to make a career out of that, but he found out he was going to be drafted. He volunteered for the army in order to give himself a little say in his military career and he would up going to a missile and radar school. He said this served will as his second career and his education in electronics went well with his chemistry and biology educations. He went on to become one of the the first African American men to work at professional level at the Lake Catherine steam plant.

He said during his childhood, his circumstances of having to adapt to segregation grew into habit. He felt fairly free to do a number of things that were out of the ordinary for African Americans at the time. He said his family always used Miller’s Pharmacy and when he was about 10 years old, he loved the comic book racks.

Green said he used to sit in a corner and read the comics, He said he remembered the owner coming up to him one day and asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Green said he wanted to be a plane pilot. The owner, joking, said he hoped he got that job so Green could come back and pay him for the comic books he read. But he let Green keep reading.

Green said comics were a dime back then and dimes were hard to come by. He said he remembered the owner as an example that people had benevolence in their hearts. While conditions were hard for a lot of people during segregation, there were some decent white people.

Laura Hunter

Laura Hunter, Green’s sister, graduated from Wilson in 1964 and went on to Philander Smith College in Little Rock with the goal of becoming a teacher. At around 1965, there was a lot of civil rights activity in Little Rock, she said.

She joined in on a march from the college to the state capitol protesting segregation. Maids and workers were not able to eat at the restaurants or use the same facilities they cleaned, said Laura Hunter. She said local ministers organized the march.

They never intended to go inside the capitol building, they found the state National Guard lined up in front of the doors to keep them out. Laura Hunter said one of her classmates did get inside, but she and most of the other students stayed outside and prayed.

She said her marches for integration started mostly in college. While growing up in Malvern, she said it was just the way of life. School was a different matter, she said. They got the cast out band and football uniforms. They played basketball on concrete and had to buy their own books. She said she used to sell popcorn at games to help pay expenses.

“The memories as a whole were good memories,” she said.

The Wilson alumni have a reunion every three years in Malvern and they’ve held these reunions since the 1980s. Young people take part in these reunions too.

“We had fine teachers, and when we went out there, we did well. Because they taught us to adapt,” she said.

She said the teachers taught them to think with imagination to get things done, which is why so many graduates earned jobs in management.

“The teachers were brilliant,” she said. “They knew what we would be encountering and they taught us that.”

Jim Hunter

Edward Green and Laura Hunter took part in civil rights activities in Arkansas and Little Rock. Jim Hunter (now married to Laura Hunter) took part in out of state activities.

After graduating from Wilson in 1966, Jimmy Hunter joined the United States Air Force where he served as an aircraft mechanics crew chief working on military planes. After serving, he got employed with a phone company in the California Bay Area.

He lived in Oakland California and he said just living there at the time was enough to get him involved in civil rights activities. He got to know other civil rights activists such as Bobby Seale, Elain Bryant, Eldridge Cleaver, and he worked on the campaign to elect Professor Victor James as sheriff of Oakland.

He said he participated in some marches and meetings with the Black Panthers, but was never a full member. He said most of his civil rights activities centered around Professor Victor James’ campaign.

He said people don’t understand how much of an impact local politicians have, especially the local sheriff. People focus on Washington, but Washington is far away from most places in the country and the people in Oakland needed to have some influence, other than the president. He said people need to know who their sheriff and chief of police are, who their city council members are, what their territories are and if they are welcome in others.

He said geography affects outlook a lot. His wife had a harder time with her employment because of her geography, centered around Arkansas and Oklahoma. Jim Hunter had been to several places around the country and he said there was a world of difference between Oakland and Malvern.

Malvern was prosperous then, said Laura Hunter, with plenty of jobs.

“I don’t know why Malvern has had such a standstill,” said Laura Hunter. “Because Malvern had it all.”

Jim Hunter said African American workers still couldn’t make as much as white workers in Malvern, but could make a good living compared to other parts of the country because the economy was booming. Laura Hunter said Malvern had five brick yards, two saw mills, an Alcoa, an old Reynolds and was close to a mine in Hot Springs. These offered very good jobs, and she said her parents taught her to always hold her head high when conducting business or interviewing for a job.

They want to be clear that they’re not bitter or angry.

“We feel very blessed,” said Laura Hunter.

Neither have ever been unable to find a job when they needed one and neither has collected a single unemployment check in their entire lives. Working though college, Laura Hunter only ended up owing about $700.

“We didn’t want what white people had. We just wanted to work and do for ourselves,” said Laura Hunter.