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One-Eyed Farmer with a Social Conscience: David Adrian “Dave” Cox (1914-1981)

Old State House Museum - Monday, November 09, 2020

Veteran Arkansas journalist Ernie Dumas in his book, "The Education of Ernie Dumas: Chronicles of the Arkansas Political Mind,"    observed of one figure in the 1962 race for governor: “If your gold standard for a politician was high-mindedness, unflinching honesty, or mere individuality, then your candidate in the primary was David A. Cox.” Dumas was not understating the case. Cox freely attacked Orval Faubus and the segregationists of the Citizens’ Councils with equal gusto, while campaigning in a manner befitting the town drunk. In fact, this was part of the reputation that he brought with him from the rural East Arkansas community he called home.

Cox was born near Weiner in Poinsett County on Oct. 22, 1914, in a community dominated by large plantations and tenant farmers. Little is known of his early life; in fact, the earliest recollection known of Cox at present came from Dumas’s account of the 1962 campaign, in which the candidate claimed that as a boy, that he had lost an eye, several fingers and part of an ear when he tried to crawl through a barbed wire fence with a loaded shotgun. The glass eye he wore was clearly visible in 1962.

According to Cox’s obituary, he married Bettye Jo Lewis of Memphis in 1949, and they had six children. The family had a farm in Weiner, but Betty Cox lived in Little Rock nine months of the year so her children could attend Catholic schools, according to an article in the Arkansas Gazette.

So, it was a total surprise at the Capitol on May 3, 1962, on the last day of filing when the lanky farmer showed up at the secretary of state’s table to enter the race for governor. When he filled out the biographical form for the press, the only information he provided was, “David A. Cox, Weiner, Ark.” Cox’s explanation was that he did not want any publicity. That condition would change quickly, and it was at the instigation of the candidate himself.

Two weeks after Cox filed, attorney Amis Guthridge, the longtime leader of the Capital Citizens’ Council, organized a “Reverse Freedom Ride,” giving two African American women and 23 children one-way bus tickets to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, the home of President John F. Kennedy, with false promises of job opportunities and free housing in the North.

The next day, Cox, outraged at the stunt, contacted the city editor of the Gazette, Bill Shelton, and asked for the location of Guthridge’s office. Cox confirmed that he was running for governor and advised that he was going to confront Guthridge. 

Shelton tipped off Dumas, who arrived at Guthridge’s office at the same time as Cox. Dumas revealed in his book the two men loudly berated one another for 40 minutes, with Cox claiming Guthridge was “guilty of inhumanity, injustice, and insulting the people of Arkansas!”

Guthridge questioned Cox’s position on integration, and Cox responded with “If God didn’t create us all integrated, who did?”

In front of reporters, Guthridge asked Cox what the people in Weiner would do if forced to integrate. Cox said, “They would mix without incident if the courts said so.” Turning again to reporters upon leaving the building, Cox said “I’m a humanitarian and I wouldn’t give a blind man the wrong directions.” Then pointing at Guthridge, he added, “I think he would.”

A week after the Guthridge incident, Cox was still flinging charges, particularly attacking Faubus for snubbing a visit by Vice President Lyndon Johnson to dedicate Guion Ferry in Izard County. On June 16, he attempted to hold a campaign opening fish fry in Weiner that he had announced the day he filed. A crowd gathered, but no fish was cooked as the two men Cox hired did not show, which the angry candidate attributed to influence by Faubus. The crowd departed, and Cox attempted to follow suit, but tripped over railroad tracks, breaking several bottles of whiskey that he was carrying. With Dumas’s help, he gathered up the fish and the bottles of whiskey that had not broken and went home, angry and humiliated.

After Cox’s departure, the mayor of Weiner told Dumas that Cox was a highly productive farmer whose success was severely limited by alcohol. The mayor further stated that Cox would regularly go to Memphis, get roaring drunk for days, and have a home so disorderly that it was common to find Cox on his living room floor fixing a tractor engine.

A rescheduled fish fry in Newport on July 4 did not cool Cox’s enmity against the incumbent. Faubus briefly mentioned the incident in a speech in El Dorado a few days later, but it was his last known mention of his opponent before the primary.

Cox tried to establish a conventional presence by opening a campaign office at 109 Louisiana Street in Little Rock, but it had no phone and the candidate was rarely there. He turned up his attacks on Faubus for Central High, but also accused not just Faubus, but also former Governor Sid McMath and Congressman Dale Alford, two of the six candidates, as being “all the products of one political machine.” At a forum hosted by the Arkansas Press Association in Fort Smith, he was asked what advice he had for graduating high school seniors, Cox’s answer was, “I’d tell ‘em, ‘She’s a low wage state! Git out and git out fast!’” Yet in spite of his outbursts, Cox actually advanced some serious policy proposals. One was to take appointment of the state’s five highway commissioners away from the Governor and instead having the county judges in each of the four congressional districts name four of the members, with the Governor naming the fifth at large member.

At the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry on July 17, he used a great deal of foul language and raised eyebrows when he proclaimed, “I aim to live to see the day when we’ve got a Negro President.” From there, he traveled with Dumas and a Gazette photographer in his car fitted with loudspeakers beginning in Russellville and made his way to Fort Smith. Dumas said at almost every stop, Cox argued with a local and then left declaring that county as a Faubus county. After lunch in Fort Smith, Cox became intoxicated, and he progressed northwest without the reporter and photographer, who took a bus back to Little Rock. When he arrived in Springdale that evening, he became even more drunk and parked his car in a residential neighborhood. While there, he made speeches and played loud music over his loudspeakers until he was arrested and spent the night in jail. Policemen and jail trusties raised his bail when he couldn’t.

After his release, he drove to Harrison on July 18 where Faubus was on a Highway Department goodwill tour. He was unable to confront the governor, but claimed that he could have accomplished highway improvements with “a quart of whiskey and a crop-dusting plane.

His bond was forfeited when he did not show up for court in Springdale, and told reporters that he would never return to the mountains, claiming that he “would stay in East Arkansas, and Crowley’s Ridge will be the highest hill I’m going to get on.”

On July 20, he was again arrested in Harrisburg, drunk and waving a pistol, and was charged with public drunkenness and disturbing the peace. He called a press conference five days later, which was covered in the Arkansas Gazette, to explain those arrests, along with others including a 1960 arrest for armed robbery, which was dropped. In Faubus’s autobiography, “Down From the Hills,” Cox was said to have surfaced one last time before the primary at a Faubus rally in Jonesboro on July 28, sat down in the front row and left the rally without incident.

Cox finished last in the six-man primary with just 2,149 votes while Faubus won a fifth nomination, barely avoiding a runoff with McMath. Cox quickly faded back into the obscurity from which he came and spent the rest of his life farming land in Weiner, Carlisle, Camden, Conway and Paducah, Kentucky, until his death in Little Rock on Sept. 9, 1981. In an election eve Gazette feature, Dumas asked Cox why he ran if he knew had no chance to win. Cox was as straightforward as ever:

“It’s worth $10,000, or whatever I’m spending,” he said, “just to be able to tell my granddaughters, when they read in the history books about what the governor did at Little Rock, that I did my best to get him (Faubus) out. I didn’t just vote against him; I ran against him. It’s just a shot in the dark, but you can’t tell what will happen in Arkansas politics, if you can get your votes counted.”

Cox was indeed an anomaly in Arkansas’s political annals: a rural delta populist who challenged the social order with courage and conviction but diluted his message with antics that reinforced many rural stereotypes. His story could well have included what might have been had it not been for his personal failings.


 

This blog relied heavily on "The Education of Ernie Dumas: Chronicles of The Arkansas Political Mind." Thank you to Ernie Dumas, Central Arkansas Library and the Butler Center Books for permissions.