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Sara Alderman Murphy was an influential civic activist and educator in Arkansas in the twentieth century. As an adult, the Tennessee native moved with her family to Arkansas at the beginning of the turmoil surrounding the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and became active in the efforts to resolve the city’s often acrimonious school battles.
Sara Alderman was born on June 17, 1924, in Wartrace, Tennessee, to David M. Alderman and Sadie Stephens Alderman. She earned a BA in social studies and English from George Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in 1945. The following year, she earned an MS in journalism from Columbia University, where she said she developed a social consciousness about race that would serve as the impetus for much of her future social activism.
She married Patrick C. Murphy in February 1950, and the couple had a daughter and two sons. Patrick Murphy served on the faculty of Northwestern State University of Louisiana from 1947 to 1950. The family moved to Little Rock, and in 1958 Sara Murphy served on the faculty of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
After the federal government enforced the desegregation of Central High School in the fall of 1957, Governor Orval Faubus closed the city schools as the 1958–59 academic year was poised to begin. In response, a group of women led by Adolphine Fletcher Terry organized the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC), and Murphy quickly became active in the group’s efforts. By directly opposing Governor Faubus’s shutdown and supporting the effort to keep the schools open in the September 1958 referendum, the group played a critical role in getting the Little Rock public schools reopened in the fall of 1959. The organization continued operations until it disbanded in 1963, with Murphy serving on its board for the final two years.
Murphy turned her energies and focus to the Panel of American Women, founding and serving as the coordinator of the Arkansas branch, which was headquartered in Little Rock. Her work with the local organization included addressing racial and religious prejudice that continued in the aftermath of the Central High School desegregation crisis, but Murphy was also active in the group’s national organization, serving as vice president from 1971 to 1974. In addition, she was active in the Arkansas Women’s Network. She was appointed to the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, and she served as vice chair from 1972 to 1975.
In the early 1980s, with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Murphy, working with former Arkansas first lady Betty Bumpers, was an original organizer of Peace Links in Arkansas. A grassroots organization intent on building bridges with the women of the Soviet Union, Peace Links played a role in civic education while also arranging exchange visits. Murphy served on both the state and national Peace Links boards and served as a spokesperson for the group on trips to both Russia and China.
Murphy began working for the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) in 1967. She also continued her own education, earning an EdD in educational administration from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1977. She became associate director for communication and dissemination of the ADE in 1979, a post she held until her retirement in 1985. She remained active in education, becoming an independent educational consultant. In that role, she worked with the Arkansas Educational Renewal Consortium, serving as executive director from 1987 to 1988. In addition, she organized the Women’s Educational Development Institute, which worked to promote non-traditional education. Soon after that, she returned to the Little Rock campus where she had once taught, this time to found the university’s Conflict Management Program, the advisory committee of which she chaired from 1989 to 1993.
Murphy spent the final years of her life writing a book about the role of WEC in the Little Rock crisis. However, she died of cancer in Little Rock on April 15, 1995, leaving the book unfinished. Her son completed the project, and Breaking the Silence: Little Rock’s Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, 1958–1963 was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 1997.
For additional information:
Cox, Sandra. “Sara Murphy: Activist, Educator Got Groups Talking.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 17, 1995, p. 2B.
Murphy, Sara Alderman. Breaking the Silence: Little Rock’s Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, 1958–1963. Edited by Patrick C. Murphy Jr. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
“Obituary of Sara Murphy.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 17, 1995, p. 2B.
Sara Alderman Murphy Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated 9/15/2017
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