When Little Rock in 1957-58 found itself paralyzed by deep seated segregationist attitudes and shuttered public high schools, the Women’s Emergency Committee (WEC) organized and enlisted hundreds of women to campaign for the reopening of the high schools in the Fall of 1959. Jean Gordon was an energetic member of the WEC as well as the Council on Human Relations (CHR), a bi-racial community group working to break the divisive color line between whites and blacks. During these years, the CHR combined forces with local black leaders to end the Jim Crow era of segregated downtown Little Rock lunch counters, retail stores and public theaters.
Jean’s tireless work for equal public education propelled her to the presidency of the Little Rock Council of the PTA, and for the first time white and black PTAs were integrated. Jean’s reputation for leadership pushed her further into the crucible of change with her election to the LR School Board in 1965. Negotiating amid the clash of local politics over the pace of desegregation proved invaluable to Jean’s later encounters with Congressmen and national leaders in the cause of nuclear disarmament and a reformed military budget.
1982 witnessed the founding of Peace Links by Betty Bumpers and other congressional wives. Their idea was that American women could form lasting relationships with women in the Soviet Union to promote peace instead of war. Peace Links needed women leaders from everywhere, and Jean Gordon was among the first to enroll. Jean ultimately served as Chairperson of Arkansas Peace Links and organized and led a delegation of Arkansas women to the Soviet Union. Locally Jean Gordon was chairperson of the Arkansas Peace Center.
The military build-up and threat of nuclear confrontation in the 1980s spurred progressive women again to organize. Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND) lobbied congress to curtail the nuclear arms race. With the close of the Cold War in the early 1990s, WAND (now Women’s Action for New Directions) adopted a broader mission of promoting world peace and security and a federal budget that redirects excessive military spending toward human and environmental needs.
Our own Arkansas WAND chapter was formed in 1997. After both the Arkansas Peace Center and Peace Links of Arkansas had folded, Jean Gordon invited women working with non-profits who needed federal funds to a luncheon to interest them in starting a WAND chapter here in Central Arkansas. Over 50 women showed up. She showed them how the federal budget pie is sliced – with the military getting over 52% of the discretionary budget.
They decided to organize around a local issue – the planned incineration of chemical weapons in Pine Bluff. They had heard about problems with incineration in Utah and that there were newer and safer methods of disposing of the weapons. After they held a demonstration there, the Army personnel were not too happy with these ladies from Little Rock, but did invite them to a presentation to convince them it was safe. The Pine Bluff Arsenal proceeded with the incineration, but WAND became part of a lawsuit questioning their methods.
Arkansas WAND’s de facto home is Jean Gordon’s house. She hosts monthly potlucks for WAND members. She lived at this same address when she was elected to the school board in the 1960s. Her living room was the place where ACORN was founded and where Presidential candidates and Nobel Peace Prize winners have visited – all in the cause of peace and justice.