Henry M. Britt
|Henry Middleton Britt, III|
Judge of the Arkansas 18th Judicial District
1967 – 1983
|Succeeded by||Walter G. Wright |
|Born|| June 19, 1919|
Olmsted, Pulaski County
|Died|| February 17, 1995 (aged 75)|
|Resting place||Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs, Arkansas|
|Spouse(s)||Barbara Jean Holmes Britt (married 1942-1987, her death)|
|Children||Three daughters: Nancy, Sarah, and Melissa |
|Residence||Hot Springs, Arkansas|
|Alma mater||University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign |
|Occupation|| Attorney; Judge|
Henry Middleton Britt, III (June 9, 1919 – February 17, 1995), was a Hot Springs lawyer and a pioneer in the revitalization of the Republican Party in the formerly heavily Democratic state of Arkansas, primarily during the 1960s and 1970s. He was the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1960, having been decisively defeated by Orval E. Faubus.
In 1966, he was elected judge of the 18th Judicial Circuit of Arkansas and served from 1967 to 1983. Britt was also a peripheral figure in the granting of repeated draft deferments in the late 1960s to future Governor and U.S. President Bill Clinton, which kept him from military service.
Britt was born in the village of Olmsted in Pulaski County in southernmost Illinois to H. M. Britt, Jr. (February 27, 1895 – March 31, 1982), and the former Sarah Theodosia Roach (August 25, 1896 – January 10, 1987). Britt procured both his Bachelor of Arts and Juris Doctorate degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1941 and 1947, respectively. He was admitted to the practice of law in Illinois in 1947. A year later, the Britts relocated to Hot Springs, a resort city in central Arkansas. Then he was admitted to the Arkansas bar. Britt was an officer tin the Judge Advocate General Corps of the United States Army during World War II.
Gubernatorial campaign, 1960
Britt served five years as an Eisenhower-appointed assistant United States attorney for the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, based in Fort Smith in Sebastian County. A critic of popular segregationist Democratic Governor Orval Faubus, Britt filed as the GOP candidate against Faubus in 1960. He proclaimed his belief in a tenet of GOP philosophy: "faith in the individual and the idea that government should not do for the individual what he can do and should do for himself."
Britt secured the support of Winthrop Rockefeller, a former New Yorker, in the campaign against Faubus, and the attorney Odell Pollard, who was later the state GOP chairman from 1966 to 1970. Rockefeller sponsored the "Party for Two Parties" at Winrock Farms near Morrilton in Conway County. He brought the Tennessee Republican entertainer Tex Ritter (the father of actor John Ritter) and the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (the father of actress Candice Bergen}, to entertain 850 guests who paid $50 each for the occasion. Funds collected went to Britt's campaign and to a "bipartisan political education fund".
Britt spent considerable time promoting the presidential candidacy of then Vice President Richard M. Nixon in Arkansas. Nixon responded while he was speaking in Memphis, Tennessee. He crossed the Mississippi River as a gesture to the Arkansans in West Memphis, where he was warmly greeted by state party leaders. In retrospect, Nixon should have seriously contested Arkansas, for he polled more than 46 percent of the vote there in 1960.
Britt urged conservatives not to support the National States' Rights Party because such action would divide anti-Kennedy voters and therefore boost the Democrats. Faubus issued a "lukewarm" endorsement of Kennedy and dispatched one of his aides, Dan Stephens, of Clinton, to manage the national presidential campaign in Arkansas. Other Arkansans for Kennedy were entrenched U.S. Senators John McClellan and J. William Fulbright. State Supreme Court Justice James D. Johnson, a conservative Democrat, criticized the Kennedy-Johnson platform but stopped short of actually endorsing Nixon, whom Johnson considered too liberal for the South.
Britt polled 129,921 votes (30.8 percent) to Faubus' 292,064 (69.2 percent). He ran far behind Nixon in Arkansas, who received 185,489 votes (43 percent), to Kennedy's 216,529 ballots (50.2 percent), and the States Rights Party's 29,057 votes (6.8 percent). Whereas Nixon won majorities in twenty-three of the seventy-five counties, Britt did not carry a single county, even in the frequently Republican northwestern quadrant of the state, where Faubus was still popular. In 1962, Britt became general counsel of the Arkansas Republican Party, having served under chairman William L. Spicer of Fort Smith, whom Britt had first challenged for the chairmanship itself.
Circuit judge in Garland County
Six years after his failed campaign for governor, Britt was elected circuit judge in Garland County, which includes Hot Springs. He was the only Republican to have been elected as a circuit judge in Arkansas on November 8, 1966, the same day that Winthrop Rockefeller defeated Jim Johnson to become the state's first GOP governor since Reconstruction.
Judge Britt and short-term state police superintendent Lynn A. Davis were credited with having ousted gambling from Hot Springs. Britt ordered the Garland County Sheriff's Office to investigate so-called "bust-out joints", or gambling operations established to draw a quick profit and then move elsewhere. Britt said that his crackdown ended the previous "Las Vegas atmosphere" of Hot Springs, often called the "Spa City". Throughout the 1970s, Judge Britt kept a grand jury on call to prevent gambling operations from reappearing. He also fought against the potential reemergence of a political machine in Hot Springs.
Paul Bosson, a Garland County prosecuting attorney, in an interview with the since defunct, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time of Britt's death, described the judge as "pretty tough".... He ran what I would call a strict courtroom." Britt was reelected as circuit judge in 1970, 1974, and 1978. He was defeated for a fifth term by the Democrat Walter G. Wright (born ca. 1932) in 1982, the year that Bill Clinton returned to the governorship after a two-year hiatus, when Frank D. White, was the state's second Republican governor for a single two-year term. Britt's initial election was attributed to Rockefeller's strength in Garland County. Q. Byrum Hurst, a Democratic former member of the Arkansas State Senate and a prominent attorney in Hot Springs who made his own failed gubernatorial bid in 1972, described Judge Britt this way: "Although we were not of the same political persuasion, Britt was OK."
In 1978, Judge Britt became embroiled in a dispute with the press when he banned an Arkansas Gazette reporter, Ginger Shiras, from a hearing in his chambers on whether to admit a police officer's testimony in a murder trial. When The Gazette appealed, the Arkansas Supreme Court declared that Britt erred in excluding Shiras from the hearing.
Federal judicial nomination fails, 1976
In 1976, then U.S. Representative John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison in Boone County, proposed to U.S. President Gerald Ford. that Britt be named to the federal judgeship vacated by the retirement of Oren Harris, a former U.S. representative from El Dorado in Union County is southern Arkansas. The nomination, however, failed before the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate.
Assisting Bill Clinton
Little was heard of Britt after he left the judgeship. In 1992, he told the Los Angeles Times that he had assisted in the effort to keep Bill Clinton out of the Vietnam War. According to Britt, he was friends with the future president's uncle, Raymond Clinton of Hot Springs, who had "one goal in my judgement–to delay, delay, delay" the chances of Clinton being drafted in the U.S. Army.
On October 29, 1942, Britt married the former Barbara Jean Holmes (March 17, 1922 – February 13, 1987). The couple had three daughters: Nancy, Sarah, and Melissa. The Britts were lifelong Republicans, not converts from the Democratic Party, as have been most southern Republicans of the second half of the 20th century. Eldest daughter Nancy Britt Marsh said that her father "was interested throughout his life in establishing a two-party system in the state. And I think he did. He continually stayed active in the party." Britt was general counsel to the Arkansas GOP from 1962 to 1964, the same years that he chaired the Garland County party apparatus.
Britt was active in a plethora of organizations: Masonic lodge, Shriners, Kiwanis International, Elks Lodge, Jaycees, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Phi Alpha Delta, and Delta Phi. He was a fellow of the National College of State Trial Judges. He was a Presbyterian.
Britt was a distant cousin of Republican former Lieutenant Governor Maurice Lee "Footsie" Britt (1919-1995), who held the second position under Winthrop Rockefeller from 1967 to 1971. The two were born twenty days apart, died in the same year, and had the same paternal great-grandfather. In 1976, Britt had a heart attack but lived nearly two more decades until he succumbed to numerous health complications at the age of seventy-five. He lived eight years longer than his mother and his wife, who died within five weeks of each other.
The Britts are interred in Block C of Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs.
- Suzi Parker, "Henry Middleton Britt: GOP stalwart opposed Faubus, was in limelight four decades," Arkansas Democrat Gazette, February 18, 1995.
- "Henry Middleton Brit," Who's Who in America, 1978–1979, p. 406.
- "Arkansas Election Statistics, 1960" (Little Rock: Secretary of State).
- The New York Times, October 16 and 19, 1960.
- Arkansas Democrat, September 28; November 1, 2, 1960 Jim Ranchino, Faubus to Bumpers: Arkansas Votes, 1960-1970, Arkadelphia, Arkansas, 1972, p. 29.
- Bessie Butler Newsom Allard, ed., Who Is Who in Arkansas, Vol. 2, Little Rock, 1968, p. 41.
- Arkansas Gazette, November 3, 1982.