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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Sidney S. McMath, September 8, 1990. Interview A-0352. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The G.I. Revolt in Garland County, Arkansas

McMath explains how he helped to lead the G.I. revolt of 1946 against the McLaughlin political machine in Garland County, Arkansas. Emphasizing the corruption of the McLaughlin machine, specifically in relationship to gambling and poll taxes, McMath worked to upset the balance of power. He explains how he and the other revolters bypassed the poll tax in order to run as independents in the election.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Sidney S. McMath, September 8, 1990. Interview A-0352. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JOHN EGERTON:
One of the first things that fascinated me about you was your leadership of that G.I. revolt in Garland County in '46.
SID MCMATH:
'46, that's right.
JOHN EGERTON:
There were other very similar things happening in the South almost simultaneously. There was one in a rural county in Tennessee, around Athens, Tennessee, that turned into a gun battle really.
SID MCMATH:
Yeah, I think that was a sheriff, wasn't it?
JOHN EGERTON:
Yeah, guys ended up surrounding the jail. They had hand grenades and automatic weapons, and they brought them out like prisoners.
SID MCMATH:
'Course, this was right after the war, and service men coming back were rather displaced, you know. They didn't have any deep roots, and they were in a transition. So they were willing to take on these hot spots. In Garland County, of course, the McLaughlin machine had been entrenched, well, throughout the 19th century anyway. 'Course, he had inherited it and strengthened it, and it was based upon illegal gambling. The gambling, as such, didn't bother me, but all the things that it led to in order to operate an illegal gambling establishment was what lead to so many of the evils. It being illegal, they had to control the law enforcement officers. Had to control the sheriff's office, the district court, the mayor's office, the marshal. They even controlled the jury system. was a lawyer, and, 'course, he practiced law. They would select the juries from employees of the gambling establishment--the bookies in Belvedere and and these other casino places. Unless you had the administration with you in a case, you couldn't win it. In order to protect their empire, they resorted to almost any type of coercion that's imaginable, and even shooting people. I remember the last man that really impressed and made me aware of the situation in Garland County--I was in high school, I guess I was a senior in high school. I was going with a girl named Evelyn Smith, and her uncle on her father's side, Brad Smith, ran for sheriff against the gang, and, of course, he was defeated. Then they assassinated him, killed him. Another man ran for mayor against McLaughlin, and they bought up the mortgage on his home and foreclosed on it. 'Course, they even got into the school system, the employment of teachers. So it was a bad situation that I had an ambition to try to correct. Then when we came back from the war, 'course we had been through some battles, you know, and so forth. So it wasn't intimidating to us.
JOHN EGERTON:
You knew how to play rough too.
SID MCMATH:
Knew how to play rough too. So we organized, and on election day in the primary of, I guess, July-August of 1946, we had a platoon of people in a central area at the Ricks Automobile Agency ready to move anywhere that they needed to move.
JOHN EGERTON:
Just like a platoon in the military.
SID MCMATH:
That's exactly right.
JOHN EGERTON:
Armed and ready to move out.
SID MCMATH:
That's exactly right. The second ward was one of the wards that they used for transients, repeaters, and so forth. They would vote those people several times, whether or not they were qualified to vote or residents or anything. Then they'd move them around to other polling areas. But the second ward was the worst. We put the word out that the FBI agents were in there checking on the election. Hoover, really, gave us some backhanded support. He couldn't get directly involved in anything, but he gave us some information and so forth, the agents did. So we set up cameras at the second ward and started taking pictures of these people coming through, and they disbursed. So it cut down tremendously on their vote in that ward. However, all of our candidates were defeated in that first primary. I was elected because we had another county in the district that was over in Mount Ida, Montgomery County. I carried Montgomery County handsomely. We had the telephone lines cut so that the people who were supporting them in Montgomery County couldn't call in and tell them what the count was so they'd know how many votes in Garland County to get in addition in order to win the election. That kind of saved the situation for us, and, of course, when the votes were published by the newspaper, the newspaper people got it, then we knew exactly how many votes we'd gotten in Montgomery County. So I was nominated, and then we had the general election coming up. The poll tax was the worst thing in the world for a fair election. It was just used by these machine counties in order to perpetuate themselves in office. Of course, the poll tax originally was enacted, as you know, to keep the blacks from voting, but then it kept a lot of white people from voting. Not only did you have to pay the poll tax, but you had to get your poll tax a year before. In order to have voted in the August primary of 1946, they would have had to have gotten a poll tax by November 1, the preceding year.
JOHN EGERTON:
Have to have paid their poll tax.
SID MCMATH:
Paid their poll tax, see, and 'course, you can't generate much interest. The professional politicians know about that, and go out and buy them up. 'Course, in Garland County they bought up blocks of poll tax. They just went down the telephone book and had them issued, you know. And they held those in reserve, and, of course, the judges and clerks, people who worked in the gambling establishments, when the poll closed, they could count out whatever votes they needed in order to win the election.
JOHN EGERTON:
It's amazing, considering all that, that you guys were able to . . .
SID MCMATH:
Well, I tell you how we did it. We had a boy by the name of--what was his name, he was from Fort Smith--and we got him to run as a write-in candidate for Congress. The time had passed to file. I'll think of his name in a minute. But he was a write-in candidate for Congress. So that created a federal question. So we brought suit in United States District Court to avoid the poll taxes which they had purchased illegally, which they had obtained illegally. They had a very complicated formula that they used. It took us a long time to break that formula, as a matter of fact. My wife did it. She's a good bridge player.
JOHN EGERTON:
You're referring now to the November election where all of the defeated candidates ran as Independents.
SID MCMATH:
That's right. They all ran as an Independent, and I supported them. We launched a poll tax drive to get people registered, because we could register them up until a week or two, a year before the election, see. And the people began to see, well, maybe we can win this. Maybe we can defeat this organization. My election gave us one law enforcement officer, so it was tantamount to nomination in the primary. So we went to work, and we avoided those illegal poll taxes. That was we were able to elect all the G.I. candidates.