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History Minute: Gov. Francis Cherry

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Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist

Political winds shift rapidly. In the 1950s, the Arkansas political winds swept up several promising politicians, including Gov. Francis Cherry. Though an able and otherwise honest man, Cherry was one of only five governors in state history not to be elected to a second term.
Francis Adams Cherry was born in 1908 in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of a railroad conductor. As a child, the family moved across Texas and Oklahoma. The family settled in Enid, near Oklahoma City. He graduated from Enid High School in 1926 and began attending Oklahoma A&M College with dreams of going to law school.
When the Great Depression hit, money problems forced him to drop out of college. He took a series of jobs trying to make ends meet. He eventually ended up in Fayetteville and was able to enroll at the University of Arkansas Law School by 1933. He worked his way through college and took a job with a Little Rock attorney when he graduated in 1936.
The next year, he moved to Jonesboro where accepted a position at a prominent local law firm. He proved to be a promising attorney and soon accepted a position with the office of the U. S. Attorney. His hard work was noticed, and in 1940, he was appointed as referee on the state workers compensation commission, judging cases of job-related injuries. By 1942, he ran for probate judge for the chancery court (an appeals court) for the Northeast Arkansas district.
During World War II, Cherry was determined to help defend the nation. Judges, however, were exempt from the draft and serving, but Cherry took a leave of absence in 1944 and became a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy. He served for two years before returning to his judicial post.
In 1952, Gov. Sid McMath was mounting a bid for a third two-year term as governor. The Arkansas Democratic Party in the early 1950s was deeply divided over charges or corruption in both Washington and Little Rock, civil rights, and the Cold War. Cherry gave up his judgeship to join a crowded field challenging McMath in the Democratic Primary, which included a current and former state attorney general. The biggest issue of the campaign centered on charges of corruption in the Arkansas Highway Department. Though McMath had done nothing improper, he was blamed for allowing the situation to get out of hand.
Cherry purchased twenty-four hours of radio time to allow listeners to call in and discuss the issues with him directly. It catapulted him into the runoff with McMath. Hammering McMath on corruption, Cherry defeated him. The general election was only an afterthought, and Cherry won easily with 87.4% of the vote.
Upon his 1953 inauguration, he called for a new Department of Finance and Administration to streamline state spending and for reforms within the highway commission. He also called for changes in how property taxes were assessed. While his proposal was meant to eliminate inequality in the system, many feared it would cause massive tax hikes. Cherry found it difficult to explain how his complicated plan would not mean tax hikes. Additionally, his veto of a popular sales tax exemption that would have benefitted farmers and a electrical rate hike damaged his popularity. As a result, in the 1954 Democratic Primary, Cherry was defeated for re-election by Orval Faubus.
In 1955, Cherry was appointed to the subversive activities control board in Washington, DC. He was appointed chairman in 1963. He faced heart problems in his later years. After an inconclusive heart operation in 1963, his health declined rapidly. He died in 1965 at the age of 56.
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Dr. Kenneth Bridges, a History Professor at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, can be reached at kbridges@southark.edu. The South Arkansas Historical Foundation is dedicated to educating the public about the state’s rich history. The SAHF can be contacted at PO Box 144, El Dorado, AR, 71730, at 870-862-9890 or at http://soarkhistory.com/.