The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

James O. Powell, Renowned Editor, Champion of Civil Rights & Progress in the Delta

Posted on March 17, 2010 at 11:23 AM

The Delta Grassroots Caucus remembers the legacy of James O. Powell, a champion of the fight against poverty in the Delta region for many years who passed away a few days ago. James O. Powell was a nationally renowned journalist who was editorial editor and columnist for the storied, progressive old Arkansas Gazette from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, and a syndicated columnist in the 1990s.

James O. Powell was the father of Lee Powell, executive director of the Delta Grassroots Caucus. This message is from Dr. Martha Ellen Black, executive director of the Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center in East Prairie, Missouri and the Missouri coordinator for the Delta Caucus, and Desha County Judge Mark McElroy of southeast Arkansas. Judge McElroy and Dr. Black are board members of the Delta Caucus.

James O. Powell was a regular participant in all the Delta Caucus events for many years, including last year’s conference at the Clinton Presidential Center.

The April 1-2, 2010 Delta conference at the Clinton Center in Little Rock will be the first time we have held a major Delta event without the presence of James O. Powell. He will be greatly missed.

JAMES O. POWELL, 1919-2010

James O. Powell, 90, a nationally recognized journalist who was editorial editor and later columnist for the Arkansas Gazette from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, died Wednesday evening, March 10, 2010. James Powell led the Gazette’s valiant editorial support for the civil rights movement and opposed the segregationist demagogy of Gov. Orval Faubus in the late 1950s and 1960s. He later championed the progressive leadership of Governors Winthrop Rockefeller, Governor and later US Senator Dale Bumpers, and Governor and later President Bill Clinton from the late 1960s to the later years of the twentieth century.

Powell received many awards, including the National Conference of Christians and Jews “Mass Media Award” for promoting racial and ethnic understanding; he was a Poynter Fellow at Yale University, an honor Yale bestows upon leading journalists across America; after the Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize, he served on the Pulitzer Prize Committee that made decisions upon recipients of that national honor for many years. He appeared in the national media of his era, such as the PBS MacNeil-Lehrer news hour, William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, in which he presented a progressive point of view against Buckley’s conservative views; and he published columns in other newspapers, such as in The New York Times, writing about the dilemma of creating more progressive policies to the South of his era.

President Bill Clinton was quoted in an interview on Saturday after Powell’s passing that “I will always be grateful for his constant devotion to civil rights, educational excellence and equity, and more economic opportunities for poor and middle-class Arkansans. Jim Powell was a first-rate journalist and eloquent editorial writer who had a profound, positive impact on our state.”

President Clinton recalled that James O. Powell wrote an editorial in 1978 stating that Clinton was Presidential timber, and Clinton said Powell “was one of the first” to say that he could some day be President.

President Clinton also said that Powell was tolerant and didn’t mind when people differed with him, recalling that “Jim was always honorable and fair.” He remembered that Powell “enjoyed a good argument and was always well-armed with facts, insight, good humor and passion.”

In foreign policy Powell worked closely with and supported the international leadership of Senator J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, leading opponent of the Vietnam War, and one of America’s leading international statesmen of the late twentieth century. He collaborated with his son, Lee Riley Powell, on a critically acclaimed biography, J. William Fulbright and His Time, with a foreword by President Bill Clinton.

Powell played a key role in supporting the careers of Dale Bumpers and Bill Clinton, endorsing Bumpers’ first run for governor in 1970. He endorsed Bill Clinton’s first run for office in 1974 and frequently commended Clinton’s brilliant public policy leadership on through his years as attorney general, governor and President. After retiring from the Gazette in 1987, Powell continued to write a syndicated column published in many papers in the Delta region until 2000.

Powell championed a series of progressive causes, including civil rights, greater educational opportunities, economic and social justice, and in particular he was interested in fighting poverty in the Mississippi Delta region. In recent years he was a strong supporter of the Delta Grassroots Caucus, a nonprofit led by his son, Lee Powell, that promotes community and economic development in the Delta region from southern Illinois to Selma, Alabama, to New Orleans.

Powell was a close friend and supporter for many years of Congressman Brooks Hays. In 2009 he shared the Brooks Hays Award from Second Baptist Church along with Annie Abrams and another civil rights leader for their service to the civil rights movement.

Before his Gazette career, he was associate editor of the Tampa Tribune in Florida, after having served as state capitol correspondent.

While in Florida Powell gave editorial support to the progressive governor, Leroy Collins. He moved to the Arkansas Gazette from the Tampa paper with support for integration being the key issue he would address as Gazette editor. At the time he arrived in Little Rock when his going to work for the Gazette had been basically decided, some racists bombed a school administration building as part of their effort to obstruct desegregation. Powell was asked if that would deter him from coming Little Rock, and he said “No, that was the perfect welcoming committee.”

Powell received death threats and other threats of violence during the Faubus years, when Gazette editorials thundered that segregation was morally offensive. The threats did not deter him from what he saw as his duty.

He was an avid fisherman and loved Arkansas’ lakes and rivers.

He loved the distinctive foods of Arkansas, such as the legendary pink tomato of Bradley County. He often said that the southeast Arkansas pink tomato “made Arkansas women more lovely and Arkansas men more virile.”

Powell was a graduate of the University of Flordia and a World War II veteran. He was born in Andalusia, Alabama. He is preceded in death by a son, James O. Powell, Jr.; a sister, Ruth Powell, of Birmingham, Alabama; a brother, Abner Powell, Jr. of Andalusia, Alabama. He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Ruth Powell, of Little Rock; his son, Lee Riley Powell and daughter-in-law Caroline Thorpe Powell of Washington, DC; and niece G.A. Wildman of Birmingham, Alabama; a niece, Pat Cassidy of Dauphin Island, Alabama; and a nephew, Abner Powell III, of Andalusia, Alabama.

In lieu of flowers please send a donation either to Second Baptist Church in Little Rock or to the charity of your choice.

Dr. Martha Ellen Black, Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center, East Prairie, Missouri (573) 649-3731

Desha County Judge Mark McElroy, Arkansas City, Arkansas (870) 877-2426