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The Arkansas News


1997 Fall
Arkansas in the New Century, 1900-1930

« Back to 1997 Fall Issue Articles

Jeff Davis Funeral Attracts Crowd of Thousands

Thousands turned out for the funeral of former Governor Jeff Davis, in probably the largest funeral Arkansas has ever seen. Davis, 50, died January 3, 1913. He had been state attorney general and governor as well as U.S. Senator.

Davis’s political career was based on his extraordinary appeal to rural whites, the "wool hat boys," and his attacks on the "high-collared roosters" of the city business leaders.

Davis was born in 1862 at Rocky Comfort in the Red River valley. The family moved to Russellville when Davis was young. Davis’s father was a Baptist preacher, lawyer, and civic leader.

Davis was named for the president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. The families were not kin, but Davis never discouraged voters from thinking they were. In fact, he usually wore a suit of confederate gray when he was campaigning.

After college at the University of Arkansas and law school at Vanderbilt, Davis entered politics just when ordinary people were feeling angry at the rich people and large businesses that seemed to control everything in the nation and Arkansas. It was the time of the national Populist movement, whose leaders claimed to act in the name of the people against the bosses.

Davis, a Democrat, shared many of the characteristics of the Populists. He criticized the rich and powerful people in colorful language (see the related story), but actually made few reforms. Davis also was a racist, playing on the fears of white voters by insisting he would continue the segregation of Arkansas blacks.

Davis was elected state attorney general in 1898, then governor in 1900. During his three terms as governor, 1901–1907, Davis continued to please and amuse the common people by attacking the rich. But his actual reforms consisted mostly of starting construction of a new state capitol and starting a state prison farm, by buying the Cummins Farm near Pine Bluff.

Davis also continued his racist ways. President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt had offended many white Southerners by having Booker T. Washington, the nation’s foremost black leader at the time, to lunch at the White House. When Roosevelt visited Arkansas in 1905, Davis greeted him with a speech defending lynching, the illegal execution of blacks by white mobs. Roosevelt coolly replied with a speech about maintaining the law.

After his governorship, Davis was elected to the U. S. Senate, but his style was not appreciated there and he was not very effective. He was still a senator when he died.

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