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The Little Rock Censor Board operated in Arkansas’s capital city for nearly seventy years trying to regulate forms of entertainment—from literature to movies—to protect citizens from influences perceived to be immoral. As social mores changed and the legality of the board was challenged, it saw its influence diminish, until it quietly disbanded.
In the early twentieth century, officials around the country attempted to censor salacious or obscene materials. For example, Memphis’s Board of Censors, created in 1911, was notorious for its harsh rulings, and Maryland established its censor board in 1916, which remained influential until its demise in 198l.
The Little Rock Censor Board was created in 1911 by Mayor John S. Odom and the city council in response to the announcement that the city’s Dixie Theater would show a film of the prize fight between Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries. Racial disturbances had occurred around the South after Johnson, an African American, had defeated the defending champion Jeffries, and Little Rock (Pulaski County) city leaders feared that screening the fight would reignite the troubles. The mayor, city attorney, and chief of police served as censor board members, and the stated mission was to protect the morals of the citizens of Little Rock. To accomplish this, they reviewed any public entertainment event or movie before it was exhibited and issued a decision on the moral appropriateness of the event or film. One example of the board’s censoring powers is its 1916 banning of the art film Purity, which featured its female star completely nude.
The board operated sporadically until 1926, when Mayor Charles Moyer reconstructed it at the urging of the city’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA). Leaders in the PTA approached Moyer because they were distressed by the increasing number of films they believed to be inappropriate for children. The city council re-created the board, which was composed of nineteen members this time, with the PTA having one representative while the rest were appointed by the city aldermen. The board exercised its police power over not only films—as it had in the earlier incarnation—but also print media. The brutal killing of a black man named John Carter in Little Rock in 1927 and the following racial tension prompted the board to ban two black national newspapers that covered the incident. Despite its involvement in such high-profile events, the censor board operated only sporadically through the mid-twentieth century.
Citing an increase in immorality, Mayor Sam Wassell called upon the city council to reorganize the Little Rock Censor Board at the end of World War II in 1945. Although the board had the power to ban any form of entertainment—such as carnival shows, artwork, magazines, and books—it focused mainly on theatrical films. The mission of this third group was similar to those of the earlier boards, but in addition, it banned the irreverent use of the name of Jesus Christ, nudity, and interracial love scenes, among other things, in films. The number of members on the board increased to twenty-four and included representatives of the mayor, the city council, and PTA, but also the Men of the Churches of Little Rock. In 1959, board membership was reduced to fifteen, with the mayor and the religious group losing their representatives.
One notable decision concerning something other than films involved the board banning the novel Return to Peyton Place and ordering the Little Rock Public Library to remove it from its shelves. The library refused to acknowledge the board’s authority and kept the book on the shelves, resulting in a stalemate.
In February 1971, Little Rock attorney Phil Kaplan petitioned the board to see if it would allow a production of the musical Hair to play in the city, as a client of his wanted to bring the national touring production to Little Rock to perform at Robinson Auditorium. The show, which had opened on Broadway to great acclaim in 1968, was known for its nudity and four-letter words. The board stated that it could not offer an opinion without seeing the production. After a lawsuit involving the Auditorium Commission, federal judge Garnett Thomas Eisele ruled in favor of the production at Robinson Auditorium.
As the social climate continued to change, so did the tone and graphic nature of films, and the mainstream popularity of sexually explicit adult movies distressed the censor board. Despite its waning influence, lack of support from city leaders, and legal challenges, the board clung to a semblance of authority, resulting in the banning of the X-rated movie Deep Throat (1972). The showing of the movie at the Adult Cinema in Little Rock in 1973 immediately resulted in the arrest of the theater’s employees. The resulting trial ended with guilty verdicts for the violation of Arkansas’s obscenity statute. Although the censor board was concerned by these movies, its involvement in the trials was non-existent, and the large numbers of people attending the movie’s showings provided evidence that the board’s authority was tenuous. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Miller v. California (1973) decision, which established stricter criteria for state regulation of obscene material, city officials refused to clarify the censor board’s authority. As a result, Chair William Apple Jr. stopped calling meetings, and new members were not appointed. In 1975, Apple requested that the board be revived, but the city attorney refused, thus ending the Little Rock Censor Board.
For additional information:Barnwell, Virgil. “Little Rock’s Censor Board Organized in 1926.” Arkansas Democrat Magazine, May 25, 1952, p. 3L.
Gingles, Violet. “Guardians of a City’s Morals.” Arkansas Democrat Magazine, December 20, 1959, p. 11.
Nutt, Timothy G. “‘Somebody Somewhere Needs to Draw the Line’: Deep Throat and the Regulation of Obscenity in Little Rock.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Summer 2010): 91–116.
Timothy G. Nutt University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated 8/17/2015
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