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History minute: A political assassination in war-torn Arkansas

by Dr. Ken Bridges | April 7, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

James Hinds had come to Arkansas with high hopes after the Civil War. However, the congressman only found tragedy as he was assassinated in 1868.

Hinds was born in Hebron, New York, in 1833, the youngest of six children. He attended college in Albany before moving to St. Louis, Missouri, in the early 1850s. He moved back east to Ohio where he earned a law degree from Cincinnati Law College, one of the few laws schools in the nation in the 1850s.

By 1856, he had settled in Minnesota where he started a successful law practice. He was soon appointed district attorney for the large expanse of southern Minnesota. After three years in the position, he won appointment as the U. S. Attorney for the state.

As the Civil War engulfed the nation, events closer to home kept Hinds in Minnesota. When the federal government refused to send promised payments to the Dakota tribe, they rose up in a desperate search for food. The Dakota War engulfed much of the Minnesota frontier region and caused widespread destruction, and Hinds volunteered for the U. S. Cavalry effort in 1862.

Chance alone brought him to Arkansas in late 1865. As an accomplished attorney and cavalry officer, the army believed his skills best suited to reconstruction efforts in the state. He settled in Little Rock where he became a respected member of the community. In 1867, he was elected as a delegate to the new state constitutional convention, a gathering that would produce the state’s third constitution in seven years.

The 1868 Constitution established the first statewide school system in Arkansas and laid the foundation for the University of Arkansas. It also guaranteed for African-Americans the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to serve in the state militia while denying Confederate officials the right to vote. As a Radical Republican, Hinds supported these changes in order to put an end to the lingering tensions from the Civil War.

Many former Confederates reacted to these dramatic changes with rage. They refused to consider the freedmen as equals, especially while their own rights were stripped away. Hinds, meanwhile, voiced his support for these moves and worked to educate the freedmen on their new political freedoms. He was elected to Congress in June.

By the fall of 1868, the political climate in Arkansas had grown ominous. Hinds reported increasing numbers of death threats against him and increasingly hostile crowds.

Hinds decided to take his case to the people and went on a tour of the state. By October, he had reached Monroe County in eastern Arkansas. His speech at Indian Bay on the White River was cancelled as local inns refused him a room because of his beliefs. He rode on several miles, but he never realized he was being followed. Suddenly, a man caught up to him, shot him, and left him for dead. He was found an hour later and reportedly identified his shooter as local resident George Clark, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Clark was never convicted.

While other members of Congress had previously died in office, Hinds was the first member of Congress to have been deliberately murdered for his political ideas. A horrific wave of political violence would continue to plague the South in the post-Civil War years.

He was one of only six members of Congress to ever have been assassinated, a tragic list that includes Sen. Huey Long and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Hinds was buried at his family plot in New York, leaving behind a wife and two young children and a state in chaos.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.

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