A Republican Governor from the Days of Yore
Winthrop Rockefeller's two terms as governor of Arkansas illustrate just how far Republicans have fallen.
In 1953, the forty-one-year-old grandson of John D. Rockefeller, America’s first billionaire, made a shocking relocation from towny New York to Arkansas, one of the most impoverished states in the country. The news made national headlines. “W.R.,” or “Win” as he was known, was a hard-drinking playboy with an affinity for attractive movie stars and Manhattan’s cafe scene, so it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic lifestyle change.
After moving to Arkansas, the maverick Rockefeller purchased a 927-acre expanse atop Petit Jean Mountain in Morrilton, Arkansas. Overlooking Arkansas’s Ada Valley, the property was essentially undeveloped wilderness. Rockefeller hired construction workers to build roads and lakes. They pumped water up from the Arkansas River to the Petit Jean mountain top and even constructed an airstrip. The result was Winrock Farms — a sprawling, 3,000-acre spread stocked with a herd of Texas Santa Gertrudis cattle.
In the early 1960s, my father landed a job at Winrock Farms, first as a butler, then later as manager of the Rockefeller home, the centerpiece of the massive spread known as “the big house.” Just before I started first grade, my parents left Petit Jean and moved back to Little Rock. The segregation of Arkansas schools prevented me from riding on the same school bus as the white children whose parents lived and worked on the mountain.
I grew up hearing the story of how Winthrop Rockefeller, who had previously donated a school bus to the Morrilton school district, offered to purchase another bus to deliver me down the mountain to the segregated elementary school in Morrilton. My parents respectfully declined his offer.
In 1966, Winthrop Rockefeller won the Arkansas gubernatorial election to become the first Republican to hold the position since Reconstruction. To put the event into historical perspective, when Rockefeller’s unlikely ascent to the pinnacle of Arkansas politics occurred, only 11% of Arkansans considered themselves Republicans. The Democratic Party was a pro-segregation, anti-civil rights, and decidedly anti-Black, explaining why Rockefeller won ninety percent of the Black vote.
At the risk of channeling Alan Iverson, I need to highlight that we’re talking about Arkansas. Not California or New York, but Arkansas. We’re talking about an Arkansas Republican — not a Democrat — getting 90% of the Black vote in the Deep South of the 1960s.
In April of 1968, Rockefeller had one of his finest moments as governor. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, he held a public ceremony to mourn King’s death. Rockefeller was the only Southern governor to publicly memorialize Martin Luther King, which, according to JSTOR Daily, may have shielded the state from the riots that swept the nation in the aftermath of King’s death:
[H]e was the only southern governor to publicly commemorate Martin Luther King in 1968, singing “We Shall Overcome” at a memorial service outside the state capitol after King’s assassination. Rockefeller’s tenure as governor was marked by inroads into equal hiring and school integration. While no radical, in the racially-charged context of Arkansas in the 1960’s Rockefeller earned a reputation for being pro-civil rights. In his first run for governor in 1966, he won 90 percent of the black vote. In an era marked by riots, Arkansas remained calm.
During his two terms as governor, Rockefeller established a surprisingly progressive political agenda. He implemented a policy of affirmative action in governmental hiring practices, adopted the state’s first minimum wage law, a freedom of information law, and cracked down on illegal gambling. Rockefeller’s attempts to pass progressive social programs, such as raising funding for education based on tax increases, were repeatedly blocked by the state’s conservative Democratic legislature. His last act as governor was commuting the death sentences of all fifteen men on death row.
Rockefeller lost the 1970 gubernatorial election to newcomer Dale Bumpers, the first wave of “New Democrats” in Arkansas politics. Bumpers later passed a series of bills virtually identical to Rockefeller’s previous program, beginning a realignment of Republicans and Democrats in Arkansas that survives today.
There is a through-line from Republican acceptance of anti-Black Democrats into the party decades ago to their embrace of fascism and white supremacy today. These days, the party whose Southern governor once stood alongside civil rights leaders is unwilling to cast a vote in favor of voting rights.
Last August, not a single House Republican voted for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Not even Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger, both praised for standing up against The Big Lie, voted for the bill, which restores critical protections gutted from the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court.
Winthrop Rockefeller died in 1973 in Palm Springs, California, at the age of sixty. Describing the Rockefeller legacy and its impact on Arkansas politics, John A. Kirk, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, wrote:
The New Democrat governors ushered in a golden era of progressive politics that was coupled with a period of relative prosperity for Arkansas, dragging the state kicking and screaming belatedly into the 20th century. Nevertheless, it was Rockefeller who made the arguments and paved the way for change. His legacy remains a glowing testimony to the impact that great wealth along with an unrelenting civic-mindedness, an unshakeable belief in the power of public education and an unswerving commitment to the democratic process, can have on improving the lives of all Arkansans.
Sadly, the Republican Party of yesteryear is no more. Indeed, today a candidate with Rockefeller’s politics could not compete in a Republican Party primary. Although they’d brand him a RINO or maybe even a social justice warrior, I suspect Win Rockefeller would wear either intended insult like a badge of honor.