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The Reverend Nathaniel R. Griswold worked toward greater education, tolerance, and spiritual understanding in Arkansas for more than four decades. He was a Methodist minister, professor of religion, community organizer, and leader of regional efforts at racial reconciliation and integration as the executive director of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR).
Nathaniel Robadeau Griswold was born on March 15, 1901, in rural Columbia County into the farming family of R. W. Griswold and Clara Griswold. He had three brothers and one sister. After attending public school, he went on to Henderson-Brown College in Arkadelphia (Clark County) before attending Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, where he received a BD and an MA. He continued graduate studies at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. After returning to Arkansas, Griswold taught religion at Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County) from 1929 to 1942, attaining the rank of associate professor. Griswold was an ordained Methodist minister; however, he had decided early in life to pursue a career in education.
During World War II, Griswold was an administrator with the War Relocation Authority at the Rohwer Relocation Center in Desha County. He served as the superintendent of the Community Activities Section of the camp, which housed thousands of Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1945. While there, Griswold facilitated the involvement of internees with religious organizations and educational organizations locally and around the country. Griswold encouraged internee creative endeavors such as the publication of newsletters and journals and classes in arts, crafts, and culture, as well as supporting a variety of athletic clubs.
In 1954, Griswold worked briefly as Secretary for Peace Education with the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee in Austin, Texas. Later that same year, Griswold became the first executive director of the newly formed ACHR.
Griswold had been concerned with race relations in the South since college. Griswold guided the ACHR through the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and the turbulent decade of the 1960s. The ACHR was affiliated with the Southern Regional Council (SRC) headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. As Griswold described the SRC, it was entirely privately funded and concerned with providing greater opportunities for all southerners, with a particular emphasis given to African Americans. Griswold proved to be an asset to the ACHR in its mission to provide service, disseminate information, and support the work of other individuals and organizations laboring for better relations in the state through communication, carefully applied political pressure, and collaboration with all parties to achieve progress. Civil rights scholar John Kirk has described Griswold as “the most influential guiding force of the ACHR’s first decade.”
As director of the ACHR, Griswold supported not only integration of public schools in Arkansas, but also other civil rights efforts, including protesters from Philander Smith College, the work of outside civil rights advocates such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Freedom Riders. Under his leadership, the ACHR worked with those groups and others to advocate for more rapid integration of all the public spaces in the state, even while local black leadership remained fragmented. The ACHR encouraged leaders in the black community to organize themselves, and organizations such as the Little Rock Council on Community Affairs (COCA)—a group of local professionals willing to confront the Little Rock white leadership more directly—formed. Griswold also sought outside assistance from groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to assist Little Rock’s civil rights struggles in applying more pressure on the city’s civic and business leaders. The city integrated most of its public facilities by 1964, and under Griswold’s leadership, the ACHR pressured for continued desegregation of schools and worked to avoid violent confrontation in the decades to come. The organization also researched the economic and political status of other minority groups, opposing anti-Semitism and other instances of religious and racial oppression. Griswold applied realism to the complicated issues of integration in Arkansas and never favored mass action and direct confrontation.
Griswold retired from the ACHR in 1972. He died on September 7, 1991, in Little Rock, and is buried in Sardis Cemetery in Pine Grove (Columbia County). He was survived by his wife, Margaret.
For additional information:Arkansas Council on Human Relations Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Griswold, Nat R. “The Second Reconstruction in Little Rock.” Unpublished manuscript included in the Sara Alderman Murphy Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Kirk, John A. Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007.
———. “Facilitating Change: The Arkansas Council on Human Relations, 1954–1964.” http://plaza.ufl.edu/wardb/Kirk.doc (accessed April 15, 2012).
Little Rock Desegregation Crisis, 1957–1959, Oral History Interview Transcripts, 1972–1973. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Nathaniel R. Griswold Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“Rev. Nathaniel Griswold.” Arkansas Gazette, September 9, 1991, p. 4B.
Joshua Cobbs Youngblood University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated 7/12/2016
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