The Washington Free Beacon has unearthed Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas’ college thesis and they are trying to paint Pryor as pro-segregation. It’s a nice trick at the end of the campaign, but it’s highly misleading. In his thesis, Pryor noted that the forced desegregation of Arkansas’ schools was seen by the local population as an “unwilling invasion” by the federal government that led to a general suspicion of democracy since it took decision making out of local hands. This is not an endorsement of that point of view but a starting point for understanding politics in his state nearly thirty years later.

Pryor was actually quite clear about what he thought of Gov. Orval Faubus’s resistance to desegregation:

Although Jim Crow was dying and blacks were destined to improve their lot, the State’s governor refused to allow the state to integrate its largest high school. Orval Faubus’s notion was doomed to fail and everyone knew it. But, for the sake of self-identity and a lingering states-rights attitude, Arkansas trudged through an embarrassing escapade that marred our character and reputation greatly.

Part of what Pryor sought to explain in his thesis, which was written in 1985, is why the people of Arkansas had generally stuck with the Democratic Party up to that time despite the fact that the Democrats had shown the most leadership in promoting civil rights and racial integration. His answer was, in part, that Arkansas Democrats were distinct from the national party and free to adopt more conservative positions, that they were the only organization with the power to resist the federal government, and that they fielded the strongest candidates.

This dynamic continued (despite a slow-motion erosion) for another twenty-five years, but in 2010 the Republicans finally broke through and became the dominant party in Arkansas. What Pryor is discovering right now is that the old formula for Democratic state-wide wins has become much less than a sure thing.

He’s in a dog fight right now and the polls show that he’s in very real jeopardy of losing his seat. If the analysis in his college thesis was right, part of his problem is simply that the Republican Party became a viable alternative with real power. And Tom Cotton may not be the greatest candidate in the world, but he isn’t a tomato can.

So, no, Mark Pryor isn’t and never was some kind of closet racist. But he may lose his seat because those kinds of attitudes have persisted and the old ways of overcoming them are not working anymore.

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