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Little Rock Uprising of 1968

What became known as the Little Rock Uprising of 1968 was triggered by the controversial killing of inmate Curtis Ingram at the Pulaski County Penal Farm. A subsequent community rally protesting the circumstances surrounding the killing and its investigation ended in violence. Three nights of unrest followed until Governor Winthrop Rockefeller imposed countywide curfews that finally brought the crisis to an end. The events ultimately led to changes in the previously discriminatory way that grand juries—which provided oversight for investigations at the penal farm—had been selected in Pulaski County.

In August 1968, eighteen-year-old Curtis Ingram, who was African American, was arrested for a traffic violation and later charged with drug offenses. He was sent to the penal farm to pay off his $110.50 fine at the rate of $1 a day, the terms dictated by an 1875 state law. After Ingram became ill, he told a white trusty (an inmate used as a guard, a common practice in the Arkansas prison system at the time) that he could not work any longer. An altercation then broke out that ended in Ingram being killed.

Extensive community debate about the incident followed. The trusty was charged with manslaughter. On August 9, a local Little Rock (Pulaski County) organization, Black United Youth (BUY), led a march from Dunbar Community Center to the Pulaski County Courthouse, culminating in a rally attended by 300 people. A heavy police presence accompanied the march, and mobilized National Guardsmen were stationed at Robinson Auditorium.

When the demonstration came to a close at 7:30 p.m., marchers headed south on Broadway to the Dunbar Community Center. Some marchers started to throw objects at the police, news reporters, and cars, leaving a trail of bricks and stones in their wake. As the marchers entered the predominately black community between 10th and 14th streets, heated confrontations broke out. Jeeps and trucks loaded with National Guardsmen pulled into vacant lots off 14th Street. They dismounted and waited, loading their rifles and fixing their bayonets at the ready.

At 8:15 p.m., the Arkansas State Police formed an armed cordon of about eighty square blocks bounded by High Street (today’s Dr. Martin Luther King Drive), Broadway, 10th Street, and Wright Avenue. At 8:45 p.m., with the situation still deteriorating, the National Guard was called into service. Fifty men were assigned to the area at 14th and Arch streets and another platoon was sent into the black neighborhood. A further 200 troops were stationed at undisclosed locations throughout the city, with another 300 on alert and 700 on standby.

At 8:52 p.m., police reported cars being set on fire at 26th and State streets. At 8:57 p.m., the Kerr Grocery at 900 Picron Street in the predominantly black East End of Little Rock caught fire. Gertie’s Liquor Store at 14th and Chester streets had its windows broken. Fires were reported at 6th and Townsend streets and in the 700 block of Cornish Street in the East End. A National Guard unit at 19th and Gaines streets reported “possible small arms fire.”

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Governor Rockefeller returned to Little Rock after cutting short his stay at the Republican National Convention in Miami, Florida—a city that had also been beset by racial unrest. He agreed to a meeting at the Governor’s Mansion with a delegation of black leaders whose main request was the removal of the National Guard. The black community cordon was finally lifted at 6:00 the next morning.

Rumors circulated of more violence to follow that night. At 7:00 p.m., Rockefeller announced that he was imposing a countywide curfew from midnight until 6:00 a.m. on Sunday. Approximately 220 National Guardsmen were committed to Little Rock, and another 300 others were on standby at nearby Camp Joseph T. Robinson. Sixty state troopers were drafted into the city. Meanwhile, the city police were working sixteen-hour shifts.

Violence flared again on Saturday evening. Between 8:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., Little Rock fire chief Jack D. Davis reported twelve fire alarms, three of which proved false. The remaining nine alarms were from fires that he claimed had been deliberately set. The most serious incident was at 28th and Arch streets, where firefighters discovered that homemade firebombs had been thrown at a house and a drugstore next door. At 10:00 p.m., National Guardsman James C. Simpson was shot in the foot at Wright Avenue and High Street. Police said the shot came from one of the units in the Village Square apartments, and they swarmed the building. Four suspects were arrested, and one was later charged with assault with intent to kill. When news of the shooting came in, the police ordered all cars carrying black passengers stopped and searched for weapons or firebombs. Early the next morning, Little Rock police chief R. E. Brians conceded that such racial profiling was illegal and ordered vehicles searched only for cause.

Sunday was relatively quiet. Gov. Rockefeller announced an earlier curfew starting at 10:00 p.m. But there were more incidents than the night before. At 9:30 p.m., shotgun pellets hit police officer Lee H. Nelson at 10th and Picron Streets. At 9:50 p.m., a group of black men sat on a church roof at 2600 E. 6th Street and threatened to burn down the church and to shoot anyone who tried to stop them. At 10:15 p.m., a fire was reported at 724 Townsend Street. During the most serious of the eight arson calls the fire department dealt with that evening, one fire fighter was hit in the mouth by a rock thrown by an unknown assailant. At 10:30 p.m., bullets hit a patrol car at 9th and Kirspel streets, and rifle shots were reported at Roosevelt Street and Interstate 30. At 11:18 p.m., sniper fire was reported at 14th and Allis streets. There was sporadic gunfire at Wright Avenue and High Street, a persistent trouble spot. Twenty-five arrests were made throughout the night: fifteen for curfew violations, one for carrying a concealed weapon, one for resisting arrest, and the others for drunkenness.

Later that day, Rockefeller extended the curfew one more night. On Tuesday, he lifted it, although teams of National Guardsmen and Little Rock police continued to patrol the city. The episode cost the city $45,900 in overtime for the police and fire departments. In all, 163 arrests were made on 198 charges: three charges for assault with intent to kill, twenty-six for weapons possession, fifty for curfew violations, nine for loitering, eight for disturbing the peace, five for resisting arrest, one for refusing to obey a police officer, seventy-five for drunkenness, and twenty-one on other charges.

The events prompted black community leaders to sue for better representation on the Pulaski County Grand Jury, which was charged with overseeing investigations at the Pulaski County Penal Farm. Federal judge J. Smith Henley ruled that the lack of black participation on the jury, stretching back to at least as far as 1953, was unconstitutional. Grand juries were ordered to be more representative in the future. The white trusty who killed Curtis Ingram was sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary for involuntary manslaughter. BUY continued to press for black community concerns to be addressed in the criminal justice system, in hiring practices, and in schools.

For additional information:
Kirk, John A. “The 1968 Little Rock Uprising: The Death of a Black Teenager Inspired Massive Protests.” Arkansas Times, September 10, 2015. http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/the-1968-little-rock-uprising/Content?oid=4069365 (accessed April 13, 2016).

———. Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940–1970. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Stockley, Grif. Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008.

John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Last Updated 4/19/2016

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