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Pine Bluff’s Instrumental Role in Transforming American Civil Rights

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

The city of Pine Bluff and many of its residents played integral parts in the civil rights movement, spanning across disciplines from psychology to law to political activism and much more.

Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark: The Doll Tests

Image Credit: The University at Texas at Austin

In the 1940s, Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark (born in Hot Springs, Arkansas) designed and conducted a series of experiments that tested the psychological impact of segregation on young children famously known as The Doll Tests. Dr. Kenneth Clark stated, “The Dolls Test was an attempt on the part of my wife and me to study the development of the sense of self-esteem in children. We worked with Negro children—I’ll call black children—to see the extent to which their color, their sense of their race and status, influenced their judgment about themselves, self-esteem.” Several cohorts of children were evaluated over a 10 year period using black and white dolls to determine their preferences. The children were asked questions about their perceptions of the dolls' looks and value. In each study, the Clarks compared the results of children from a Southern segregated school with those of children from integrated Northern schools.

These evaluations overwhelmingly showed that the majority of children from the Northern and Southern segregated schools had negative perceptions of the black dolls and positive perceptions of the white dolls. The Clarks concluded that children’s racial identities were formed by the age of three, and Negro children attached negative traits to their own identity based on the segregation and prejudice they experienced. These research findings later proved instrumental as part of the Brown v. Board of Education where the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It was the first time social science research was used in a Supreme Court case.

Interestingly, of all the cohorts the Clarks examined, the first one composed of 134 black children from Pine Bluff, Little Rock, and Hot Springs was the only cohort with positive responses to the black doll.

George Howard Jr.: A Man of Many Firsts

Image Credit: University at Arkansas

George Howard Jr. was a pioneering African American attorney and judge from Pine Bluff. In 1950, he was part of “The Pioneer Six”, the first six African-American students to attend the University of Arkansas School of Law. While at U of A, Howard was also the first African American to live in university housing and the university’s first elected black officeholder when he was elected president of the dormitory. Upon graduating, Howard returned to Pine Bluff and opened a private law practice, where he pursued numerous school desegregation suits in Fort Smith, El Dorado, and other districts to ensure the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling was upheld in Arkansas school districts. Howard actively fought to desegregate public places like local theaters. He also used his legal prowess to combat the inequalities related to jury composition and the use of the death penalty. Howard was also an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as president of the State Council of Branches.

Later in his life, Howard became the first African American to serve on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, on the Arkansas Supreme Court, and as a judge in an Arkansas federal court. He was also inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1994. Known for his thorough preparation and fairness, Howard was still performing his duties when he died in 2007 at age 83. Soon after his death, the federal building and courthouse in Pine Bluff was renamed the George Howard, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.

Bobby Hutton: An Early Casualty in the War Against Police Brutality

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Bobby Hutton was born in the east Pine Bluff community known as “Pot Liquor” on April 21, 1950. When he was just three years old, a visit from a racist vigilante group associated with the Ku Klux Klan prompted his family to relocate to Oakland, California, for their safety.

In December of 1966, at just sixteen, Hutton joined Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale and their newly formed Black Panther Party for Self Defense, becoming its youngest member and treasurer. Hutton was eager to make a difference in his community and believed in the Panther’s Ten-Point Program, which called for an end to police brutality and an increase in basic freedoms for Black Americans. Hutton was arrested alongside several members of the Black Panther party on two separate occasions in May of 1967 for protesting laws prohibiting the carrying of firearms in public places.

On April 6, 1968, two days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Hutton, Eldridge Cleaver, and other members of the Black Panther party confronted the Oakland police, with whom they had a difficult history. During the 90-minute confrontation, two officers and Cleaver were shot, while Hutton was uninjured. In the process of surrendering to the police, Hutton was reportedly shot more than 12 times, though he was unarmed with his hands raised. The Oakland police claimed he was wearing a trench coat and attempting to flee the scene. Hutton’s death became an important moment in the history of the Black Panther Party and a nationwide rallying cry against police brutality. More than 1,500 people attended Hutton's funeral, where actor Marlon Brando gave his eulogy. He is memorialized in songs by artists Tupac Shakur, Smif-N-Wessun, and Bhi Bhiman. The Commemoration Committee for the Black Panther Party even organized the Lil’ Bobby Hutton Literacy Campaign in his honor.

Visit Explore Pine Bluff’s Delta Civil Rights Legacy Trail for more information about Pine Bluff’s powerful connections to Civil Rights history.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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