She stood up.
She raised her right hand for recognition, stood up, spoke up – and the nation took notice.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in deciding Brown v. Topeka Board of Education declared the “separate but equal” rule, which divided white and black students into different schools, as unconstitutional. Southern states, perhaps Arkansas most famously, fought against the ruling. In September 1958, Gov. Orval Faubus blocked black students from entering Little Rock’s Central High School, even as the federal government said that they must be admitted, and, ultimately, forced open the doors with military support.
As 1958 Little Rock smoldered, undone by the heat of the Central High School integration crisis, the flames spread 160 miles north to Van Buren, Ark., threatening to set that town ablaze as well. In Van Buren, the high school had been integrated without major incident the year before, but now coals of anger, distrust and fear grew into flames. Into that flickering light, Angie Evans Benham stepped and gained the attention of a nation.
The students at Van Buren High School elected Angie student body president at the end of her sophomore year. During the summer, she attended a student council workshop to learn ways to represent the students and discover their opinions. But the workshop leaders never mentioned how to deal with integration, the one issue many schools and students faced.
“It was the elephant in the room,” Angie said.
That fall the elephant trumpeted in Van Buren and focused national attention for one month on the then-small town of 7,000 and school of 635 students.
As the then 15-year-old Angie’s junior year began in Sept. 2, 1958, 45 white students staged a strike at Van Buren High School protesting the enrollment of 13 black students and attempted to scare them away from returning. On the evening of Sept. 4, 1958, students burned a mannequin in effigy at the flagpole, although a Sept. 5, 1958, New York Times article noted, “The students seemed more bent on having a lark than creating a serious integration problem in burning the effigy.”
But the black students stayed away from school the next day, and the next and the next, and for weeks after.
For the rest of the first week of school, students, joined by some townspeople and people from outside of Van Buren, picketed outside of the school demanding its closure, for it not to be integrated. (A total of 78 students, 69 boys and nine girls, would eventually be expelled for striking, according to media reports. They could not be readmitted to the school until their parents enrolled them and promised that they would behave. “Obviously, the parents knew education was more important than segregation,” Angie said.)
“One or two of them were good students. The ones I had known since elementary school had never liked school, it didn’t matter who was there,” Angie said. “It was their way of not going to school and exercising authority.”
For the girl beginning her junior year of high school, it would be a month that proved a refining fire to test the steel strength of her convictions.
“She has the ability to rise to the occasion,” said her husband, David Benham, who also attended Van Buren High School and was a junior that year. “She’s of the character that kids gave her a lot of respect, even the upperclassmen.”
As the students protested outside of school, parents and community members formed the White Citizen’s Council to discuss how to aid them. They also planned to attend a school board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 9 to demand changes.
On Sunday, Sept. 7, Angie sat in a pew at St. John’s Methodist Church with her family.
Two years earlier after the Supreme Court’s decision, she also sat beside family members, her soul absorbing the Rev. Robert Sessions’ sermon.
“We will not be fooled by rabble-rousers or political opportunists who for their own selfish purposes try to stir up discord among our people. We know that the alternative to law and order is lawlessness and disorder, and the opposites of peace and love are strife and hatred. As followers of the Prince of Peace, we will work for peaceful solutions,” Sessions said. “Every experience in life that tests our faith can be an occasion for witnessing to our convictions, and for examining our convictions in the light of the new experience. In the days ahead each of us will have the opportunity of bearing living testimony to the Christlike way.”
Two and a half years later with the town high simmering that September, Angie again sat on the pew next to her family and listened as the Rev. William Wilder, the current pastor, spoke.
“Democracy is a rule of the majority but it is the function of the majority to protect the rights of the minority,” he said to the congregation, according the Sept. 8, 1958, issue of the Southwest American newspaper. “Moral problems are matters for the human conscience and not something to be decided by a poll of the people.”
But a poll of the students of Van Buren High School is just what Angie decided to use when a teacher told her of the board meeting. Angie and other student council members spent Sept. 9 polling students on whether black students should attend Van Buren High School. She invited students, including David, who supported integration, to attend the meeting with her, but she had no intention of speaking.
David recalls informing his father of planning to attend the meeting. “My dad was a true Southerner of the times with his prejudices. He said, yes, I could go, but there could be trouble.”
Angie didn’t tell her parents of the meeting.
Tension filled auditorium, but the school board president managed to keep the meeting from becoming raucous, David said. He, Angie and the other students listened as the community members made their arguments.
One member of the citizen’s council demanded the high school be segregated once more.
“We know the Negro students don’t have a decent school of their own here but can we get them back into Lincoln (Fort Smith Negro High School) and what are the chances of building a school here?” he asked, as reported by the Southwest American on Sept. 10, 1958.
As Angie listened she felt a rising pressure within her urging her to speak, to share the poll results. She raised her hand to the support of the White Citizen’s Council, whose members didn’t know what she planned to say, and stood up.
“I knew they weren’t going to like what I had to say,” Angie said. She told them of the poll of 160 students with 45 opposed to integration, 30 undecided and 85 in favor. The mood of the White Citizen’s Council began to shift. Then she told the board and council members that it’s only fair that the black students be allowed to attend the school.
“Have you thought what you make those Negro children feel like, running them out of school?” she said.
Council members turned against the 15 year old, splattering her with hate-filled words. (“Nobody is ever proud of having hated,” she said, declining to repeat their words. “Things have changed now. I think more people wish their parents had been more loving and more open and accepting than wish their parents had taken a harder line than they did.”)
“When the meeting was over I felt it was over, that things would be OK,” Angie said. “It was just the beginning of major bad feelings toward me and other students.”
David said: “It was a watershed moment when she told what the student survey said. After that the meeting was sort of over. I don’t know why that particular moment was so important, but it seemed to be. The White Citizen’s Council was in the majority there. I think they thought they had enough clout to close the schools and stop integration. But us students, we knew that it was not equal…It was time for Van Buren to take a stand and say we’re going to integrate.”
Angie walked home with her cousin along the railroad tracks after the meeting. She didn’t tell her parents about speaking up in the meeting. Her father read about it in the next morning’s newspaper.
“My parents never talked about it; they never expressed their fears to me,” she said.
It would be Sept. 22, 1958, before the black students returned to classes in Van Buren, and then only eight of the 13 returned. Angie said she regrets not making friends with any black students after their return.
“I was ill at ease like I would be around any stranger. They were enough different from me and my experiences that I didn’t feel like I had the skills to reach out to them. That was silly. Everybody’s more like other people than they are different,” she said.
But in standing up Angie had captured the nation’s attention simply by asking how segregation made others feel. On that September evening, individual strands of faith, family and personal experience wove together to create the image in newspapers and magazines across the nation of her standing with her right arm stretched heavenward.
“Someone had to speak up,” Angie later told reporters and was quoted in Time magazine. “I just don’t think segregation is a Christian thing.”
She grew up listening to her parents talk about American’s rights and thinking of others.
Her father, often exhausted from working multiple jobs to provide for his family, was rarely animated. Yet, praising the U.S. Constitution filled him with energy. Those moments of passion etched in Angie’s mind his words, “Everybody, no matter who they are, where they came from, or what color they might be, has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Similarly, her mother, made to feel less than others as a teenager dressed in homemade clothes after she moved from rural Rudy to Van Buren, thought of others, often exclaiming, “Oh, I wonder how (someone) must be feeling. Don’t you know he must be hurt, or sad, or upset by this,” Angie wrote in a 2007 essay published in “Crisis of Conscience: Arkansas Methodists and the Civil Rights Struggle.”
Angie also noticed the differences between the schools she attended and the ones the black children did. She found them far from equal. Hers had indoor plumbing. The elementary school for black children still had outhouses. Older black students had to travel to Fort Smith to attend school.
So she stood up and spoke up.
And a darker thread entered weaving of her life.
“It was a lesson that removed my innocence,” she said. “I knew if you did bad things, bad things would happen to you. I didn’t know that if you did something good and right that bad things could happen.”
She received letters asking her to change her opinion, letters telling her integration was a Communist plot, letters praising her, letters thanking her.
“I’m so full. I am so full,” one woman wrote of her joy when she heard of Angie’s stand.
Another wrote: “Congratulations to your good thinking and those that agree with you. Too many white people forget that they are white by accident and the good Lord, not by something they accomplished themselves to be proud of.”
In another letter, the writer offered congratulations and wrote: “I’m sure you will hear from many people, some will agree with you and some will try to change your mind. The important thing is you were and are willing to speak out. It is important to believe in something, but it is even more important to have the courage to speak your convictions, especially when they are unpopular.”
“You have a lot of mail today,” her parents said when she would come home – some of the only words she heard her parents speak about the stand she took.
She also received one postcard, then another, and another – all from Las Vegas and all from the same man.
“Those are death threats,” he father told her. “Say no more.”
Some people stopped shopping at her parents’ neighborhood grocery store, although they received new customers too. A fraternal organization blacklisted her brother. Aunts listened to hateful comments thrown at them during their organizations’ meetings. Church members split their support. When the phone rang sometimes the voice on the other end spewed hate and anger, sometimes it was a reporter wanting to interview Angie. At night, lying in bed, Angie listened to the low, worried murmurings of her parents.
“It was traumatic for me,” Angie said recalling that time, including being interviewed. “I knew I was just a girl who really didn’t know very much and that I could be easily embarrassed by what I would say that wouldn’t be very wise or smart….I knew I was young and inexperienced.”
Time magazine called Angie the “pretty Ozark Joan of Arc,” which caused Angie to laugh. Mademoiselle magazine named her one of its women of the year. The 1962 Fort Smith Junior College Numa yearbook staff placed her in the yearbook’s Hall of Fame stating, “A young woman of impeccable integrity; an excellent student.” In 2013, Van Buren High School inducted her into its Hall of Honor. Despite the accolades and awards, she claimed she wasn’t a hero.
“That experience and the letters I received taught me that one act of kindness can have immeasurable repercussions, both good and bad, but mostly good,” she said. “I really see it as an act of kindness rather than being a heroine.”
In the 50-plus years since that fiery September in 1958, Angie and David married in 1962, raised a family and worked as missionaries together in the Navajo Nation. David attended WestArk for two years before transferring to the University of Arkansas, from which he graduated in 1965. He also earned a master’s from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. After years of working with Baptist missions, David now serves as an Episcopal priest in Rogers. Angie earned her degrees from Fort Smith Junior College, Agnes Scott College and Georgia Tech before working in clinical psychology trying to help people believe they “are worthwhile beings and they are loved.”
At times in those passing years, she would pause to question her life and what it has meant.
“I look at that [the integration crises] and the letters I received and I’m reassured that at least I did that. I made some people feel better because of that stand. It’s reassurance that I’ve done one good thing,” she said.