History Minute: John Gray Lucas

John Gray Lucas was born in the chaos of the Civil War and became a voice for civil rights in Arkansas. He was born in East Texas in 1864. His mother had been a slave who became a refugee as she sought to escape the increasing shortages and lawlessness of the dying Confederacy. In his lifetime, Lucas rose from slavery to becoming an outspoken legislator and federal prosecutor.

He grew up in Pine Bluff. Despite the many hardships Arkansas faced during Reconstruction, African-Americans now had new opportunities. Lucas attended local schools where he was a gifted pupil. He would later attend Branch Normal College (University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) before gaining admission to Boston University law school in 1884. He would graduate with honors in 1887 and return to Arkansas to set up his law practice. He passed the state bar exam with a perfect score.

He would become the assistant prosecutor for Jefferson County and was later named a special magistrate for the US Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. In 1890, he was elected to the state House of Representatives, representing Jefferson County.

In spite of the increasing obstacles that freedmen faced in the years after Reconstruction, Lucas remained determined to secure a future for African-Americans in the South they had helped build. In one speech, Lucas stated, "We will not leave the graves of our fathers, but here we will rear our children; here we will educate them to a higher destiny."

His optimism and determination met their match in the legislative session. In 1891, the state legislature, dominated by reactionaries, passed a slew of bills designed to push African-Americans back down to a subservient existence. Bypassing the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbade any restrictions on the vote based on race, legislators instead relied on the deep poverty and poor education that most African-Americans still faced. A poll tax was imposed for voter registration as well as a secret ballot. The secret ballot prohibited the illiterate from voting. In the deep poverty of Arkansas, the $1 poll tax was too high of a price for democracy, and they were unable to afford to register to vote. The Separate Coach Law mandated that all modes of transportation be segregated by race. Lucas had argued passionately against these laws, but failed.

Gov. James Eagle did nothing to oppose the rising tsunami erasing the gains of the freedmen and actively encouraged it. African-Americans would lose the right to vote for decades. Segregation would be the law. Lucas and the eleven other African-American members of the state legislature were swept out of office as a result.

Lucas, frustrated by the loss of so many basic freedoms for African-Americans in Arkansas, decided he could do no more. He moved his family to Chicago where he would become a prominent defense attorney and would serve in several city and county positions. He argued a number of cases before the US Supreme Court.

By 1934, he was seventy years old. While many men would consider retirement at such an age, Lucas was ready to start a new career as President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him Assistant U. S. Attorney. Lucas would serve ably through the Great Depression and World War II until his death in 1944. He devoted his life to the fight for justice, laying the groundwork for future breakthroughs in civil rights in Arkansas and across the nation.