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Students United for Rights and Equality (SURE)

Students United for Rights and Equality (SURE) was a student civil rights organization at Southern State College (SSC) in Magnolia (Columbia County), now Southern Arkansas University (SAU). College authorities disbanded the group in 1969. The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that action in an important case upholding First Amendment rights of campus organizations and students.

SURE was founded by black and white students on October 28, 1968, as an act of racial solidarity. Ernest Pickings, an African American, served as president. By design, black and white students shared other offices. The organization quickly grew to become one of the campus’s largest, with about as many white as black members.

Controversy began in December 1968 when SURE sent a critical letter to a church near campus that had turned away five black female students from Sunday services. However, the letter was apparently not part of a considered strategy to challenge Magnolia’s lingering segregation practices. SSC president Dr. Imon E. Bruce, wary of the organization from the beginning, immediately forced SURE’s faculty advisors to resign and placed the organization on probation. SSC’s Student Senate voted to support Bruce’s actions.

In March 1969, SURE invited Joe Neal—an organizer for the civil rights, antipoverty, and antiwar group Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC)—to speak on campus. Neal had been arrested some time before for refusing to leave an unauthorized meeting with students at Henderson State College (now Henderson State University) in Arkadelphia (Clark County). The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the arrest, however, when young attorney Jim Guy Tucker pursued this first case for the newly organized state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. When SSC authorities demanded that SURE cancel Neal’s appearance, its new faculty sponsor, history professor Donald C. Baldridge, refused.

Neal appeared without incident on March 20, 1969, before a large SSC crowd. City and state police, standing in readiness off campus at Bruce’s request, proved unnecessary, but their presence did reveal the president’s anxieties. Because of Neal’s speech, college authorities suspended SURE for refusing a legitimate request of college authorities. This time, SSC’s Student Senate in a close vote opposed the administration. Bruce also took steps to have Baldridge, a tenured professor, fired. The charges included failure to make progress on finishing his dissertation, a charge that could well have been applied to many other faculty members at the time, and refusal to carry out a legitimate directive from college authorities. Clearly, however, the real but unstated reason was his role with SURE, including participating in the students’ lawsuit. The sponsor assisted SURE’s students in bringing suit in federal court on April 3, seeking the protection of the constitutional rights of SURE members and an end of the suspension.

Bruce eventually succeeded in eliminating SURE from the campus and in firing Professor Baldridge. By the time the lawsuit ran its course, student leaders had graduated or moved on; other students never reconstituted SURE. After a hearing, a committee of SSC full professors upheld Baldridge’s dismissal. He subsequently taught for decades at Idaho State University.

Although long delayed, justice eventually prevailed. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s Tinker decision, ruled in Pickings, et al. v. Bruce, et al. (1970) that SURE’s and members’ rights under the First Amendment had been violated. The Court affirmed factual findings of the Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ investigation at SSC in April 1969 that actions against SURE were unwarranted, and that the organization and its activities had posed no threat to campus order or to normal educational activities. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) censured SSC for Baldridge’s termination. Twenty years later, a new administration at Southern Arkansas University agreed with that AAUP decision against SSC and made a financial settlement with Baldridge that removed the school from the censure list.

The story of SURE is also one of missed opportunities at SSC. African-American students at SSC in December 1969 created the Black Students Association (BSA) as a successor to SURE. The racial separatism that this organization represented prevailed for a long time, rather than the racial unity that SURE had promoted. Another lost opportunity at SSC was the short-lived appointment of a black trustee. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, a Republican whose chief accomplishments were, arguably, in the area of race relations, closely monitored but did not intervene in the SURE controversies. However, he did appoint Dr. William Hunter to SSC’s board of trustees in January 1970. Hunter was the first African American to be appointed to the board of any public institution of higher education in the state, except that of the historically black college in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The Arkansas Senate, however, in an unusual move, refused to confirm Hunter’s appointment at its 1971 legislative session, and newly elected Governor Dale Bumpers, a Democrat, did not fight to keep Hunter on the SSC board. Later, Bumpers did insist on retaining civil rights leader Elijah Coleman, whom Rockefeller had appointed in September 1970, on the board of Arkansas State University.

For additional information:
Agee, Paula Killian. “Pickings v. Bruce: Students United for Rights and Equality.” In First Amendment Studies in Arkansas: The Richard S. Arnold Prize Essays, edited by Stephen A. Smith. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2016.

Pickings et al. v. Bruce et al., 430 F.2d 595 (United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, August 6, 1970).

“Southern State College.” AAUP Bulletin (March 1971): 40–49.

SURE Papers. University Archives. Southern Arkansas University, Magnolia, Arkansas.

Willis, James F. Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909–2009. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2009.

Winthrop Rockefeller Papers. Center for Arkansas History and Culture. University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas.

James F. Willis
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 4/13/2017

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