Bruce Bennett

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Bruce Bennett​

Bennett with his wife Rebecca and two children
(undated photo)

Attorney General of Arkansas
In office
1957​ – 1960​
Preceded by Tom Gentry​
Succeeded by J. Frank Holt
In office
1963​ – 1966​
Preceded by J. Frank Holt​
Succeeded by Joe Purcell​

Prosecuting attorney for 13th Judicial Circuit in South Arkansas​
In office
1953​ – 1956​

Born October 31, 1917​
Helena, Phillips County
Arkansas, USA
Died June 27, 1979 (aged 61)​
El Dorado, Union County, Arkansas​
Resting place Arlington Cemetery in El Dorado ​
Political party Democrat

Sought Arkansas governorship in 1960 and 1968​

Spouse(s) Rebecca E. Bennett ​
Children James Bruce Bennett
Susan Bennett​

Parents:
Oakley Adair and Anita Bennett​

Alma mater Southern Arkansas University​

Vanderbilt University Law School​

Occupation Attorney

United States Army combat pilot in World War II
Earned Bronze Star

Note:
  • Early in his career, Bruce Bennett sought to pose as a more determined segregationist than Governor Orval Faubus, who attempted in 1957 to block the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School but was forced by the Eisenhower administration to adhere to federal court orders.​

Bruce Bennett (October 31, 1917 – August 26, 1979) was a Democratic politician from El Dorado, Arkansas, who served as his state's attorney general from 1957 to 1960 and from 1963 to 1966. Bennett lost gubernatorial primary elections for governor in 1960 and 1968.[1]

Background

Bennett was born to Oakley Adair Bennett and Anita Bennett in Helena in Phillips County near the Mississippi River in eastern Arkansas. In 1921, the family moved to El Dorado in Union County in southern Arkansas, where Bennett attended public schools. He studied pre-law at El Dorado Junior College and the subsequent Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia in Columbia County.[1]

In 1940, Bennett joined the United States Army; two years later, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and served fourteen months in Europe. He returned to the United States for pilot training. Toward the end of World War II, Bennett was redeployed to the South Pacific as the commander of a B-29. In thirty missions over Japan, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with tree clusters, and a Bronze Star. After the war, Bennett attended Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tennessee, having procured his degree in 1949.[1]

In 1952 and 1954, Bennett was elected prosecuting attorney of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit for south Arkansas.[1]

As attorney general

Originally a segregationist, Bennett won his first term as attorney general in 1956, when he succeeded the two-term Democrat Tom Gentry.[2] That same year, Governor Orval E. Faubus defeated segregationist intra-party rival James Douglas "Justice Jim" Johnson, then an outgoing state senator and later an associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. In 1960, Bennett declined to seek a third consecutive two-year term as attorney general and instead challenged Faubus in the primary. Both Johnson in 1956 and Bennett in 1960 accused Faubus of being less than committed to racial segregation, even depicting him as a tool of the NAACP and its Arkansas leader, Daisy Bates. Bennett ran a surprisingly distant third in the primary behind Faubus and the moderate Joe Hardin, a former Arkansas Farm Bureau president.[1][3]

In 1958, Bennett authored a series of bills designed to limit the activities of civil rights protestors, whom he considered "the enemies of America.”[1] The bills sought to prevent the NAACP from providing legal counsel or funding lawsuits in Arkansas. Bennett tried to force the NAACP to release its membership list and personnel records to the state, a position struck down in 1958 by the United States Supreme Court in a related case, NAACP v. Alabama. Bennett also procured legislation to prohibit NAACP members from becoming Arkansas state employees. He associated the NAACP with an "international communist conspiracy" and presented such testimony before legislative bodies in Arkansas and Tennessee.[1]

Bennett was succeeded as attorney general in 1961 by J. Frank Holt, who stepped down a year later to join Johnson on the Arkansas Supreme Court.[2] In 1966, when Faubus declined to seek a seventh term as governor, Bennett was defeated for re-nomination for attorney general by Joe Purcell.[1] That same year, the post-Faubus Democrats nominated James D. Johnson for governor, ten years after his first attempt to gain the post. Johnson defeated his fellow justice, J. Frank Holt, in the primary. However, in the 1966 general election, Johnson lost to Moderate Republican Winthrop Rockefeller, a supporter of civil rights legislation.​

In 1966, Joe Purcell succeeded Bennett as attorney general when he defeated a then stronger-than usual-challenge from a Democrat-turned-Republican, Jerry Thomasson of Arkadelphia in Clark County.[4]

One last race

In 1968, Bennett sought a comeback in the Democratic gubernatorial primary on the theme that Winthrop Rockefeller had become "an expensive luxury which the state of Arkansas can no longer afford," a reference to state financial shortfalls.[5]

Bennett finished a weak fourth in the primary, with 65,905 votes (15.7 percent).[6] The winner of the gubernatorial nomination, State Representative Marion H. Crank of Foreman in Little River County, defeated in a heated runoff contest Virginia Morris Johnson, Jim Johnson's wife and the first woman ever to seek the Arkansas governorship.[7] Crank went on to lose narrowly to Rockefeller in November general election; then Rockefeller was defeated for a third term in 1970 by Dale Bumpers.

Later years

Bennett had helped to found the Arkansas Loan and Thrift Company, which collapsed by scandal from within its ranks. AL&T padded officers’ accounts by soliciting investors for disputed industrial development projects. Company executives profited while investors were ruined by the bankruptcy of the firm in 1967. While attorney general, Bennett protected the company from state regulation in an opinion which declared it beyond the scope of state securities laws. In 1969, Bennett was charged with twenty-eight counts of securities violations and postal and wire fraud. However, a ten-year struggle with throat cancer prevented him from facing trial.[1]

Bennett is interred at Arlington Cemetery in El Dorado.[1] He was survived by his wife, Rebecca E. Bennett (1918–2008), and two children, James Bruce Bennett (born c. 1954), an attorney in El Dorado,[8] and Susan Bennett.[1]

References

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Bruce Bennett (1917–1979). encyclopediaofarkansas.net. Retrieved on October 22, 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Office of Attorney General (of Arkansas). encyclopediaof arkansas.net. Retrieved on October 22, 2019.
  3. Roy Reed, Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal' (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997).
  4. Arkansas Secretary of State, Election Returns, November 8, 1966.
  5. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, July 19, 1968, p. 1826.
  6. Arkansas Secretary of State, Primary Election Returns, 1968.
  7. Virginia Lillian Morris Johnson (1928–2007). encyclopediaofarkansas.net. Retrieved on October 22, 2019.
  8. James Bruce Bennett. pview.findlaw.com. Retrieved on October 22, 2019.

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