History Minute: Judge George Howard

"So when is the time right?" Judge George Howard once asked in an interview. For his entire adult life, he fought for civil rights and basic justice for all Arkansans. He had faced many bitter criticisms of his work, often told that the time was not right for some small progress on civil rights. Through his work, he opened many doors in the fight for progress and civil liberties.

George Howard, Jr., was born in Pine Bluff in 1924. When World War II erupted, he enlisted in the navy. After the war, he attended Lincoln University in St. Louis, graduating with honors. From there, he returned to Arkansas to attend the University of Arkansas Law School.

Howard graduated in 1954, becoming one of the first African-Americans to ever graduate there. He returned to Pine Bluff and established a successful law practice and became deeply involved in the growing civil rights movement.

In the 1960s, he went across the state in a drive to desegregate Arkansas public schools. He was the attorney in cases desegregating schools in El Dorado, Ft. Smith, and West Memphis, among others. Armed with decisions handed down from the Supreme Court, he successfully argued that these districts had violated the rights of thousands of school children by segregating the races. Civil rights meant that minorities should be treated like human beings. His efforts ultimately led to dramatic changes in policies that ended administrative discrimination. To this day, federal courts still carefully monitor districts across the state to ensure that the constitutional rights of school children are upheld in enrollments.

In 1971, he served as the attorney for the family of an African-American man who was shot and killed in a Lincoln County jail in an argument over a $23 speeding ticket. The incident created a stir across the state and Howard was very critical of the investigation and the lack of African-Americans on the grand jury. The deputy was ultimately acquitted of criminal charges but found civilly liable in a later lawsuit.

His reputation across the state grew. He had previously been appointed to the State Claims Commission in 1967. Gov. David Pryor, impressed by Howard's work, appointed him to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1977, becoming the first African-American to serve on the state's highest court though other African-Americans had served as judges in lower courts. Howard was also only the eighth African-American nationwide to serve on any state supreme court.

Soon after Bill Clinton became governor in 1979, Howard was appointed to the State Court of Appeals. A few months later, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Howard as federal judge for both the Eastern and Western Districts of Arkansas. Howard said when he became a federal judge, "I made it crystal clear that I was a judge for the people – not for the black people or red people or yellow people, but for all the people."

In 1990, his appointment was modified to serving only the Eastern District of Arkansas. But in this decade, he heard some of his most controversial cases. He presided over aspects of the Whitewater land development scandal, which ensnared President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, but no evidence ever emerged of any wrongdoing on the part of the president or the first lady or many others in the case in spite of lengthy investigations. However, Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was ensnared in the case, convicted, and forced to resign.

Howard continued to serve as a federal judge for the remainder of his years. In April 2007, he died quietly in Pine Bluff. After his death, a scholarship was established at the University of Arkansas in his memory. The federal courthouse in Pine Bluff was renamed for Howard, a fitting monument to a man who dedicated his life to the cause of justice.​​

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