Arkansas Times: From Williville to Washington: Sen. Joyce Elliott is ready to school Congress
By: Stephanie Smittle
The state of Arkansas has never sent a Black lawmaker to Congress. If state Sen. Joyce Elliott were to win her race for Arkansas’s 2nd Congressional District, that would change. But despite her decades-long record of diligent public service, it will be an uphill climb.
Arkansas has been shifting steadily to the right for at least a decade now, and Elliott is a progressive with a history of vocally supporting reproductive rights and environmental protections and humane policies toward immigrants. She’s running in a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 against its own former first lady. Elliott’s opponent is Republican Rep. French Hill, whose resources and connections as a former banker run deep. And in her first attempt to win the 2nd District seat in 2010, Elliott lost to another Republican, Tim Griffin, by a nearly 20 percent margin.
But Elliott’s time has come, experts and colleagues say. Her 30-year record as a public school teacher makes her a formidable advocate on issues Arkansans profess to care deeply about — education, health care and child care. She’s been tireless in pursuing reforms to Arkansas education policy; in a former legislator’s words, she is “a work horse, not a show horse.” And her personal story is riveting. Elliott was the second Black person to graduate from her rural Arkansas high school; her sister Caroline was the first.
Now, Elliott’s campaign emails are signed by the likes of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris — high-profile Democrats lending their endorsement weight to an outraised but promising challenger. Elliott will almost certainly win her home county of Pulaski, but she needs to win it by a large enough margin to counterbalance rural and suburban counties like Saline and White, which voted overwhelmingly for Hill in 2018.
The year 2020 has been extraordinary and unpredictable, though, and Democrats like Elliott have made some big inroads with suburban women and college-educated voters. Though her campaign trailed Hill’s in cash on hand as of July, she raised more than twice as much money as her opponent between April 1 and June 30, a sign of the enthusiasm around her candidacy.
Elliott was born in 1951 and grew up in a rural stretch of Nevada County along what is now state Highway 371. For her and her six siblings, Willisville — population 140 — was “town.” After their parents’ separation, their father moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., and the Elliott kids lived with their mother, Edna Elliott, who worked as an orderly at the local hospital, and their grandparents, Tilton and Leedoshia Smith.
Without a movie theater or other such city-kid amusements, the Elliott kids learned to entertain themselves. Joyce, less squeamish than her sisters, would climb the giant catalpa trees that surrounded their house and pick off worms to sell as live bait to the fishermen headed to the lake behind Willisville’s country store. She and her sisters shared clothes, and they’d do yard work for neighbors for pocket money, or collect bottles along the highway to sell. During the summers they’d hike trails through the woods nearby and look forward to eating “Dinner on the Grounds,” the potluck Sunday supper that local churches took turns hosting. In the fall, they’d report to Oak Grove Public School, established in the 1930s as a means of public education for Black students who lived in the Willisville, Oak Grove, Cale, Bodcaw and Laneburg school districts.
At Oak Grove, Elliott was a star student, positioned to graduate at the top of her class. She planned on attending the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff on the full scholarship she’d receive as Oak Grove’s valedictorian. But in the years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, court-ordered desegregation began to filter out to the rural parts of Arkansas.
Willisville instituted a plan under which Black students from several families living within the school district’s boundaries were to attend Willisville schools for the 1966-67 school year (though no white students were required to transfer to Black schools). Nearly a decade had passed since the desegregation crisis at Little Rock’s Central High School, but integration was nevertheless met with great resistance in Nevada County. Elliott was 15 then, about to enter the 10th grade. Her teachers at Oak Grove, Elliott recalls, were excited for her, in part because sending a high academic achiever like her to Willisville High might bolster the message that Black schools in Arkansas were providing a robust education. Within her family, Elliott said, the prospect of changing schools was met with “acquiescence,” she said, “and with a bit of trepidation.”
“The idea was, if you choose to go to this school, you’ll be treated so badly you won’t choose to come back,” Elliott said. Her stellar transcript from Oak Grove was called into question in a meeting with the Willisville High superintendent and principal, she recalled, where Elliott was told: “You might have made these grades at your n***** school, but you won’t make them here.” The high school basketball coach told her, falsely, that they didn’t have a uniform that would fit her. “I got some disparate treatment,” she said, “to sum it up.”
After the first year, with Willisville High asserting that it had held up its end of the bargain to pursue integration, Elliott’s family and the others were given the option to return to Oak Grove. “The principal and the superintendent gathered all of us in the hallway and announced to us at semester that we could go back to the other school the next year,” she remembered.
Before she realized she’d spoken the words aloud, Elliott recalled, they’d already left her lips: “I’m not going back,” she said.
Not that it wasn’t tempting. Oak Grove was a big school, and Elliott knew her former teachers there to be dedicated and engaging. They’d been careful to couch core subjects like history and English in context, Elliott said, “to be sure that we knew about things in our lives other than slavery.” They’d taught Langston Hughes. They’d fostered conversations about the message behind Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” They’d talked about the murder of Emmett Till, and why his mother insisted his casket remain open at his funeral.
In the end, the only Black students that did not return to Oak Grove were Elliott and her siblings; by this time, Elliott’s path to the valedictorian spot had been upended anyway, she said, and at the encouragement of their mother, “it became more important to me that I stand my ground where I was.”
The years at Willisville High, Elliott said, “were defining years,” a time when she “was paying attention to everything, and seeing so many things that needed to change.” When she wasn’t doing schoolwork or, eventually, playing on the Willisville High basketball team, she was an avid newspaper reader, absorbing speeches from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy on television and reading reports of students organizing under the banner of racial equity across the nation. In 1968, pioneering civil rights lawyer John Walker was about to open up one of the South’s first racially integrated law firms in Little Rock. When he came to speak in Willisville, Elliott and her sister managed to borrow their Uncle Brown’s bright pink truck to drive into town and hear Walker, carefully parking their conspicuous ride six blocks away so as to not attract the sort of attention a pink truck tends to receive. (Decades later, Elliott would serve in the Arkansas legislature with Walker, and would eulogize him in 2019 as his body lay in state at the Capitol rotunda.)
By the time she turned 17, Elliott had resolved to go to college in her corner of Arkansas, despite an uncle’s offer to pay her tuition if she’d leave the South for college. In 1969, she enrolled as an English major at Southern Arkansas University in nearby Magnolia, then called Southern State College. In need of a job, she walked into the Columbia County employment office to see if any local businesses were hiring. On the way out, she ran into the office’s manager, so she asked him for a job in the employment office itself — and got it. She used the sewing skills she’d learned in her high school home economics class to make her own office attire — first, as a way to dress for the new gig, and later, as a side business selling handmade hats, tops and bridesmaid dresses. To keep up with demand, she opened up a layaway account at a local fabric store.
She also began cementing her plans to become a teacher, largely because of the way she was treated during her own high school experience. “There was just too much that needed to be done,” she said. “And for some reason I thought, ‘What will I do if I just leave? What will be my contribution?’ ”
In the end, Elliott did leave — but not for long.
After college graduation, she secured a teaching job in New Boston, Texas, a school that had never had a full-time teacher who was Black. She married an aspiring educator named Bill Barnes and taught the subsequent year at Leto High School in Tampa, Fla., where Barnes was completing a fellowship at the University of South Florida. Elliott returned to Arkansas in the mid-’70s to teach at El Dorado High School; she told the Arkansas Times in 2005 that it was like she “had an umbilical cord” connecting her to her home state.
“You know how sometimes you might go to college and just chill for a year or so? Joyce didn’t have a chill bone in her body,” said Bonnie Haynie, an educator and director of federal programs for the El Dorado School District. “She was a go-getter. She took nothing for granted.”
Elliott and Haynie taught together in El Dorado for years — dressing as football players to liven up school assemblies, co-leading the Classroom Teachers Association and, later, pushing for more equitable access to Advanced Placement courses for their students. El Dorado, in those days, was “a community of haves and have-nots,” Haynie said, “and still is, for the most part. … I have seen her fight for kids who needed to be fought for.”
It was during the ’70s, too, that Elliott met Johnnie Roebuck, an Arkadelphia educator who would eventually join Elliott in the state legislature in 2007. Roebuck remembers Elliott’s forward-thinking teaching style from professional development workshops as part of a program called “Teacher to Teacher.” “Joyce was one of the first people I knew that did a lot of group work with audiences, instead of just lecturing to them,” Roebuck said. “She would put people in groups and have them problem-solve. Back in the ’70s, it was something that we were not seeing everyone do, and she did it so successfully.”
They served together on the Southern Regional Education Board and later collaborated on legislation, including one bill to help college students retain credits when transferring institutions and another to hold universities accountable for low graduation rates. But long before Elliott became a legislator, she sought ways to improve the profession, like advocating for the establishment of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in 1987, a voluntary but rigorous training program that both certifies teachers in their field of study and gives them a financial incentive for doing so.
Elliott continued teaching in El Dorado until 1984, when she moved to Little Rock and spent almost 20 more years in the classroom. Over four decades after she began teaching, Elliott has asked for many of her former students’ votes while campaigning door-to-door. She’s watched some of them become her fellow legislators.
House Minority Leader Rep. Frederick Love (D-Little Rock) was a student of Elliott’s at Joe T. Robinson High School, where Elliott taught from 1989-2003. Love remembers a time during his junior year when he wanted to apply for Arkansas Governor’s School, but changed his mind halfway through the time-consuming application. Elliott wasn’t having it. “She told me, ‘Fred, you are going to Governor’s School. You will complete that application, and that is the end of it,’ ” Love said. He was accepted and still cites that summer session as a life-changing experience.
Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore, who grew up in South Arkansas, took English from Elliott at Rogers Junior High in El Dorado. “You always knew to be prepared in her class,” he said. Moore was careful to say he does not, in his city government role, weigh in on partisan politics, but called Elliott a “true champion” in the realm of public education.
“Sometimes when decision-makers are in a room, it’s not always well-represented or well-balanced, and she has an uncanny ability to make sure all sides are at the table — not only at the table, but that they have a voice. That’s something I’ve watched her do over the course of my career, and it’s something I’ve tried to emulate,” Moore said.
Elliott’s transition from teacher to policymaker was seamless: She didn’t quit teaching when she became a state representative, and she legislated while teaching at Robinson High for the first two of her three terms in the state House of Representatives. During that first race in 2000, she’d canvas neighborhoods after her school day concluded, limiting her door-knocking time in accordance with her doctor’s wishes, as she’d donated a kidney to her sister Gloria that July.
Not least among the campaign volunteers that year was Bill Barnes. By this time, he and Joyce had divorced but had raised a son, Elliott Barnes. A now-retired math teacher and school administrator, Bill “has campaigned with me in every one of my campaigns,” Joyce said.
The foray into politics was a long time coming. Elliott had first imagined it when she was 9 years old, overhearing her older relatives voicing their enthusiasm for then-candidate John F. Kennedy. “They stopped whispering about voting and started talking out loudly about voting,” she said. “Just not being bent over. I mean, literally, I saw people walk straighter. And they became these pillars of resistance unto themselves. And I knew that meant something. … I just thought, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I want to make people do that.’”
Some who knew her in the ’80s and ’90s might have been surprised that she didn’t run for office sooner. Not long after Elliott moved to Little Rock in 1984, she took a teaching hiatus to serve two terms as president of the Pulaski County chapter of the National Education Association. There were personal calculations to be made, though, and she returned to the classroom when her NEA service concluded. Elliott wanted to wait until her son was older before she ran for office. “My husband was very involved in the household,” she said, but during her son’s upbringing, “it mattered to me very much that he was a boy, and that he was Black. I felt it demanded a lot of my time to make sure he was safe and cared for and was being challenged in school. I knew what could possibly happen.”
She remembered picking Elliott up one weekend during his first year at the University of Arkansas, and being stopped by a state trooper on the return trip, with both Elliott and his half-brother in tow. Bill Barnes, Elliott said, “had gotten remarried and had a little boy, and we were all still very close and very good friends. And that was my son’s little brother.” They’d pulled over briefly; the boy, then about 5 or 6 years old, needed to pee. “And I saw a state trooper on the other side of the interstate, and I just knew that he would come back. And he did, sure enough. And I kept thinking, ‘I want this to be that he is checking to make sure we’re OK.’ ”
It wasn’t. “He came back, lights on and everything, and stuck his head in the car, and just demanded to know who in the car was smoking pot. And kept insisting, so much so that it scared the little boy.” This began to upset Joyce’s son, Elliott, “who was a big ol’ guy. And I knew that was not going to be good.”
The situation cooled, but the memory stuck with Joyce. She said being a mother — and now a grandmother to her son’s daughter, Athena — has helped her build policy with an understanding of “what other parents go through, especially with their Black sons, and thinking about other kids having a fair shot at the beginning.”
And, Elliott added, without missing a beat: “That’s why pre-K is so important.”
Shifting from a personal story to public policy (like nationwide pre-K access) is both necessary and tricky territory for a politician. Some sound slick, or too rehearsed. Not many do it as honestly and as elegantly as Elliott does. Maybe it’s all that time she spent teaching literature to high school kids, where tying a specific story to a broader principle is absolute bedrock.
Or, more likely, the connection between the personal and the political is something Elliott grasps at a deep level. “As a former English teacher, she recognizes that words are powerful,” Rev./Dr. Anika Whitfield said, “and that the words that are written in the preamble of the Constitution have never been realized for people who look like her and myself.”
Whitfield is one of the most visible activists pushing for change in the Little Rock School District in recent years. In 2015, the state Board of Education took control of the LRSD on the basis that six of the district’s 48 schools were in “academic distress.” Since then, a coalition of groups have pushed for restoration of local control. Whitfield, who works as a podiatrist at CHI St. Vincent, co-chairs a group called Grassroots Arkansas,founded in June 2017 in response to the takeover. She says Elliott was “boots on the ground, Day One.”
In January 2015, as the state board debated whether to take over the LRSD, Elliott warned against the “myopic” approach of blaming schools for problems created by poverty and inequality. “It’s myopic to the point that most well-meaning folks don’t even discuss that schools and neighborhoods are connected. And that’s not an excuse — it’s just reality,” she told the state board at the time. But the state board pressed forward, voting 5-4 to take over the district.
Years later, the LRSD is still under state control, and Elliott has only gotten louder on the issue. “You may punish Little Rock by closing schools,” she said in a press conference in October 2019, and “you may punish Little Rock by taking over the district, but five, 10 years from now, what is going to be different if we are not looking at the source from which all of the problems come?”
At a protest the following month on the steps of the state Capitol, Elliott stepped to the microphone and made a speech that managed to combine two things she’d come to know very well in her lifetime: the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Arkansas mosquitoes. “Dr. King said the only way people will walk on your back is if you bend over and cooperate with them. There is no bending over. There is no walking on your backs unless you submit. Do not submit.
“If you think you can’t make a difference,” she told the crowd, “you try sleeping in a room with a mosquito, and see if it won’t ruin your night. Let’s be mosquitoes and do everything we have to do to make sure the Little Rock School District is not operating in 1957 in 2019.”
Elliott’s influence on Arkansas schools extends far beyond Pulaski County and the LRSD. As a lawmaker, she has worked on virtually every aspect of public education, from school funding to teacher licensure standards. Among the myriad pieces of legislation she’s sponsored is a 2013 law that requires schools to provide dyslexia screenings. She’s become known as one of the state’s most persistent advocates for expanding access to pre-K education.
Speaking up for poor communities and communities of color on the legislative floor for two decades now has meant enduring some tough circumstances. Sam Ledbetter, a Little Rock lawyer from Camden (Ouachita County) who served as a Democrat alongside Elliott in the state House, remembers a time when she received death threats for her sponsorship of a bill that would extend in-state tuition rates to some undocumented students — those we would now call “Dreamers.”
“She was fearless,” Ledbetter said. “It didn’t faze her a bit.” (Ledbetter is a former chairman of the state Board of Education and cast the deciding vote for the LRSD takeover in 2015, though he’s since been critical of what he called the Arkansas Department of Education’s “utter mismanagement” of the LRSD.)
Elliott has had to collaborate across ideological divides. That Dreamer tuition legislation, for one, was supported by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee.
University of Arkansas political science professor Janine Parry said the partnership always fascinated her. “You had a liberal Black female legislator and a white male Republican Southern Baptist radio personality,” Parry said. “It seemed like an unlikely partnership, but I always thought it spoke well for them both that they at least tried it.” The bill did not pass, but Huckabee and Elliott had sparked the conversation, and Elliotttried again many times over the years. In 2019, the state Senate passed a bill — sponsored by Rep. Dan Douglas (R-Bentonville) — that gave Dreamers and certain other groups of immigrants access to in-state tuition.
“Things incubate,” Parry said, “usually for decades, until conditions change. And then we finally get the thing that people were trying to do 20 years ago.”
Building public policy across party lines, though, isn’t what it used to be. Politics in the United States has made a pretty robust transition to what Parry called negative polarization. “It’s not just that we’re for our team,” Parry said, “it’s that we think the other team is murderous and immoral.”
Perhaps that’s why it’s been captivating, in recent years, to watch Elliott develop a friendship and legislative partnership with Republican Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren. Hendren, a veteran and F-15 fighter pilot, flew Elliott in his plane to the Paragould Rotary Club in 2018, where the pair spoke jointly on the topic of civil disagreement. He’s now joined Elliott in efforts to pass a bipartisan state hate crime bill in the 2021 legislative session, something Elliott first pushed for as a freshman state representative in 2001. Governor Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and other Republican legislators announced their support for a draft of the bill in August 2020.
Maintaining civil discourse with Republicans is not new to Elliott, nor is it a skill set she saves for the Capitol dome. For more than 15 years, she’s attended Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas, where the 500-plus congregation represents “25-30 nations,” Pastor Mark DeYmaz said, and includes Governor Hutchinson’s Director of Labor Ralph Hudson and other Republicans. Mosaic hosted a watch party for Obama’s presidential acceptance speech in 2008, and its 15th anniversary celebration in 2016 was opened with words from Hutchinson, the first few of which DeYmaz recalls were devoted to greeting — and lauding — Elliott’s career from the pulpit. “It seems like Americans have lost the ability to think in nuance these days,” DeYmaz said, “but Joyce is one of those people who — even if people disagree with her policies — I’ve never met a person who’s doubted her heart.”
At 69, the reasons why Elliott briefly considered a career in broadcasting are still very apparent. She’s instantly recognizable. Her hair is cropped short, her features are striking and she favors oversized, baubled necklaces in unblinking hues — teal flecked with gold, or pearlescent white. At her campaign kickoff in January, she wore a blue bowtie. That so many of her colleagues and supporters casually refer to her beauty, or describe her as “stunning,” might feel out of place in 2020 when, presumably, her accomplishments have eclipsed her style. That is, it might feel out of place until Elliott is looking you in the eye, sharp and ready and inquisitive and compassionate.
“She just has an aura that makes you happy to be around her,” Hendrix College politics professor Jay Barth said. Barth and Elliott have known each other for about 25 years, and Barth remembers asking her to read at the blessing of his marriage to lawyer Chuck Cliett in 2012. At the time, Elliott was in a runoff contest for her bid at re-election to the Arkansas Senate. “She was running in a district that was overwhelmingly African American and pretty conservative, religiously. Also, 2012 was a long time ago when it comes to same-sex marriage,” Barth said. “So it was an ask. And she said, ‘Yeah.’ It just kind of shows the core of who she is. … She did what was right, rather than what politics told her needed to be done.”
John Whiteside, political consultant at Watershed Political Strategies and former political director of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, called his campaign work with Elliott “the political love affair of his life.” He managed Elliott’s campaign for the Arkansas Senate in 2008, and then again when Elliott made a run at Congress in 2010, hoping to succeed Vic Snyder, a Democratic incumbent who was retiring that year.
“She’s just an incredible human,“ Whiteside said. “We always knew that if people ever discovered who Joyce was, they would fall in love.”
He remembered campaigning with Elliott at a 2010 parade in Pangburn, a White County town that was over 95 percent white. “She was the only Black face in that entire crowd. There were people who, if not openly hostile, were clearly signaling that they didn’t want to engage,” he said. “And she would just go right up to them, and start a conversation. There would never be enough time in a race, but if you could put Joyce in front of everybody, you’re gonna win. ”
But that didn’t happen in 2010. Nearly 58 percent of voters in the 2nd Congressional District voted for Elliott’s opponent, Tim Griffin, who is now lieutenant governor and a 2022 gubernatorial candidate. Republicans gained more seats in Congress that year than they had since 1948.
Even in 2018, when tides turned and Democrats flipped 41 House seats nationwide, Arkansas was barely touched by the blue wave. French Hill kept possession of his U.S. Congress seat after defeating Democratic candidate Clarke Tucker — a Harvard grad, state representative and cancer survivor who had been seen as a serious challenger to Hill.
This isn’t 2010, though. Or 2018. The country has been ravaged, economically and emotionally, by a global pandemic, the president’s handling of which threatens to erode support from independent voters who have otherwise voted Republican in recent elections. We’re in the middle of a reckoning on race that mirrors what Elliott bore witness to in the 1960s — one that begs for a perspective like hers in congressional leadership.
“She’s opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Ledbetter said. “The way we still have racism ingrained in so many institutions in society; she’s helped me understand that. And I think that Joyce is one of those people who makes everyone around her a better person.”
As Snyder’s campaign chair in ’96 and ’98, Ledbetter knows the 2nd District well. Ledbetter thinks Elliott has a shot in this election. “Obviously she’s the underdog,” he said. “But we understand she’s got more support out in the rural counties than she got in 2010. I think a lot of women in the district are feeling a little differently toward going in and reflexively voting Republican. I think they’re more open to looking at another option.”
Some of the rural counties in the 2nd District are becoming more diverse, Barth said, despite being tied to histories of white flight. And Elliott’s record on public education “is something that she has in common with folks who don’t look like her, and probably don’t share a lot of her beliefs on other issues. Schools — public schools, are really at the center of a lot of those communities,” he said.
Whether or not a blue wave is in store nationwide, Parry said, will be a matter of Democratic turnout. “It’s who’s engaged and brought into the political stream vs. who chooses to sit it out, and historically, the burden is much more on Democrats to mobilize their voters,” she said.
And, Parry said, when it comes to Elliott’s ability to energize voters, “I don’t think you should bet against the power of 30 years of [teaching] high school students. It’s hard to sweep people into an electorate who are what we call seldom or infrequent voters, but if the conditions were ever right for sweeping some of those voters in, this is it. She’s it.
“I think that if a Democrat has a shot at a U.S. House seat in Arkansas for the next decade, it’s this candidate, in that district, this year,” Parry said. She pointed to a study done by her colleague Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who runs the United States Election Project. McDonald, who correctly predicted record high midterm turnout in 2018, expects that turnout in the 2020 election could exceed 65 percent, another 100-year record. That could bode well for Elliott’s numbers in Pulaski County, where her biggest groundswell of support lies.
“It is a very challenging race for any Democrat,” Barth said. “That’s unquestioned. I do think she has an authenticity that is perhaps the most valuable trait that any person can have in 2020 politics. And that’s true whether you’re Donald Trump, who possessed a certain core of authenticity in 2016, or a candidate like her. I think voters have a pretty good nose for fakers. And I don’t think anyone has ever accused her of being fake.”