Who Is Enforcing Civil Rights in Arkansas: Is There a Need for a State Civil Rights Agency?

Chapter 1


Over a number of years, the Central Regional Office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has conducted extensive reviews of state and local civil rights enforcement agencies and has made recommendations to strengthen these agencies and in some instances to create state agencies where needed.[1] The Central Region’s focus on the progress of state and local human rights agencies is based on “new federalism,” in which the federal government committed itself to increase funding for state and local civil rights agencies to enforce civil rights laws.[2]

The purpose of this report is to examine whether citizens of Arkansas have adequate means for redressing complaints of discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations; to assess the existing state civil rights laws in the context of applicable federal civil rights laws; and to inform the general public about civil rights laws in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Advisory Committee has consistently received information and complaints over a number of years from citizens alleging a lack of civil rights enforcement in Arkansas and that citizens do not know where and how to file complaints of discrimination.[3] Currently, Arkansas is one of several states in the nation that have not established a state civil rights/human rights enforcement agency.[4]

On June 11, 1998, the Advisory Committee voted to conduct a fact-finding meeting to assess this situation. Such a meeting was held on September 23–24, 1998, in Little Rock. Persons representing local, state, and federal governments; elected officials; attorneys; community leaders; and civil rights advocates appeared before the Committee to present their views and factual information about the nature and extent of civil rights enforcement in Arkansas.[5]

The Advisory Committee conducted field interviews and obtained information from selected government agencies and civil rights organizations regarding the numbers and types of complaints they received and whether they believed a state agency was needed to enforce civil rights laws in Arkansas. The Advisory Committee also received information from participants at an Arkansas Civil Rights Conference sponsored by the Arkansas Department of Human Services in April 1998.[6]

Arkansas Demographics

According to the 1990 census, Arkansas has a population of 2,350,725, a 2.8 percent increase over the 1980 census. Arkansas is the 33rd largest state in the Union. Minorities total 425,857, or 18.1 percent, of the state population. Forty-eight percent, or 1,133,076, of the population is male, and 52 percent, or 1,217,649, is female.[7]

Pulaski County is the most populous county, with almost 15 percent of the total state population. The largest cities in Arkansas are Little Rock, North Little Rock, Fayetteville-Springdale, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, and Texarkana.[8] The population breakdown is shown in table 1.[9]





Arkansas Population










Total population












American Indian, Eskimo or Aleut




Asian or Pacific Islander




Other race




Hispanic origin












Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, CB 91-100, March 1991 and July 1998.

Data analyzed by the Arkansas Employment Security Department in 1996 show that people of color make up 14.3 percent of Arkansas’ labor force. This statistic includes a growing number of Hispanic, Native American, and Asians and Pacific Islanders. In the Pulaski County area alone there was an 83 percent increase in the Hispanic labor force from 1990 until 1996. Similarly, there was a 168 percent increase in the Native American labor force. According to the Arkansas State Data Center and recent newspaper accounts, the population of minority groups has increased considerably throughout the ‘90s.[10]

Arkansas leads the nation in Hispanic population growth. Hispanic immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, have moved into Arkansas and are primarily employed in the state’s poultry and meat processing industries.[11] Officials at the State Census Data Center said that in 1990 the census counted 19,878 Hispanics. But over the past decade, the population has more than doubled and exceeded the 2005 projection issued two years ago. The new estimate conducted in 1998 shows 49,473 Hispanics, which researchers indicate is probably too low by as much as a third, putting the actual population at more than 60,000.[12] Although Hispanics live in all areas of Arkansas, their numbers are concentrated in Fayetteville and the Springdale-Rodgers area in northwest Arkansas and farther south in Fort Smith and DeQueen. According to state officials, the new census estimates show that a new and permanent community is in the making.[13]

The state has experienced a smaller growth in the Asian American immigrant population. The Asian population increased from 12,530 in the 1980 census to 18,529 in the 1990 census.[14]

In the past, race relations were addressed as a black-white issue. Clearly, with the surge of the Hispanic and Asian populations in Arkansas, race relations will have to address many other ethnic and multicultural issues. A definitive population count will not be available until the 2000 census.[15]

Statement of the Issues

The first efforts to develop state civil rights legislation began under then-Governor Bill Clinton in 1991 with the formation of a task force.[16] The Arkansas State Legislature and then-Governor Jim Guy Tucker signed into law Arkansas’ first civil rights legislation on April 8, 1993 (see appendix B).[17] This bill was shepherded through the Legislature by State Senator Bill Lewellen of Marianna and State Representative Bill Walker of Little Rock. According to Senator Lewellen, the civil rights legislation passed but fell short of providing full civil rights protections. Its signing capped a struggle to bring Arkansas into the fold with other states, allowing citizens to bring civil rights actions in state courts on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, and disability.[18]

Currently in Arkansas, there are no state agencies with statutory authority to enforce state civil rights laws. However, redress of grievances is available at the federal level. If a person is discriminated against in employment because of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, or disability, he or she can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In the area of housing, if a person is discriminated against because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, or handicap that person can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Citizens may also file housing complaints with the Arkansas Fair Housing Council or the Arkansas Community Organization for Reform (ACORN), which are local deferral agencies with limited enforcement authority.[19]

The question then becomes, Could a state agency authorized to enforce comparable provisions of federal civil rights be effective? Claude Rogers, past president of the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies and former director of the St. Louis, Missouri, Civil Rights Enforcement Agency, pointed to the benefits of having a state agency even in the presence of federal authorities.[20] He told the Advisory Committee:      

You have a civil rights statute in the state of Arkansas that most of the citizens cannot access because most of them cannot afford to pay lawyers to defend them, and there are very few attorneys in the United States of America or anywhere in the world that I know that will take a civil rights case on consignment unless it’s a smoking gun. . . . So you need a state civil rights agency that is there working for the citizens, one that does not cost them anything, that can do the investigation, and gather materials that are needed. EEOC has a backlog that you would not believe. And they’re constantly trying to reduce that backlog. Currently I believe if you file a case with the EEOC, it takes at least 18 months before it’s assigned. Justice delayed is justice denied. So a local or a state human rights agency not only serves the purpose of being an avenue for citizens who do not have the funds to hire a private attorney, but they also receive justice immediately. Most business people across the country feel that they would rather have those types of things (civil rights litigation) settled right at home in the state of Arkansas, rather than having the United States government in their business.[21]

State officials of Tennessee and Nebraska, which both have established human rights agencies, have noted that state enforcement agencies provide citizens orderly, timely, and inexpensive legal services to redress grievances.[22]

[1] See Iowa Civil Rights Agencies, September 1982; Nebraska Human Rights Agencies, December 1982; Missouri Human Rights Agencies, June 1988; From the Dream of the Sixties to the Vision of the Nineties—The Case for An Alabama Human Relations Commission, December 1992.

[2] Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, project proposal, “Is There a Need for an Arkansas Human Relations Agency,” July 17, 1998.

[3] Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, meeting minutes, Apr. 30, 1998, and Jan. 22, 1998; 1998 Southwest Region Civil Rights Conference, Arkansas Department of Human Services, Little Rock, AR, Apr. 28–30, 1998 (hereafter cited as Arkansas Civil Rights Conference).

[4] Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Little Rock, AR, Sept. 23–24, 1998, transcript, vol. 1, p. 42 (hereafter cited as Transcript).

[5] Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, meeting minutes, June 11, 1998; Transcript, vol. 1 and 2.

[6] Arkansas Civil Rights Conference. The Advisory Committee conducted field investigation interviews and questionnaires from July 1998 through September 1998.

[7] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, CB 91-100, March 1991 and July 1998.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Andrew Green, “Arkansas Leads U.S. in Surge of Hispanics, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sept. 4, 1998, p. 1A; Jim Nesbitt, “Hispanics Full Growth of Small Arkansas Towns,” The Times Picayune, Aug. 18, 1994, p. 1B.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, ST-98-30, July 1998.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Minority Population Surges,” USA Today, Washington edition, Sept. 14, 1999, pp. 1–3.

[16] Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993; Noel Oman, “Signing of Bill Ends State’s Long Holdout on Civil Rights Front,” The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Apr. 9, 1993, p. 1A.

[17] The Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993 (codified at ARK. Code. Ann. § 16-123-101 (Michie Supp. 1999)).

[18] Oman, “Signing of Bill Ends State’s Long Holdout,” p. 1A.

[19] Transcript, vol. 1 and vol. 2.

[20] Claude Rogers, Transcript, vol. 1, pp. 26–50.

[21] Ibid., pp. 32–33.

[22] Warren Moore, Tennessee Human Rights Commission, and Lawrence Myers, Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission, cited in Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, From the Dream of the Sixties to the Vision of the Nineties—The Case For An Alabama Human Relations Commission, December 1992, p. 9.