The small college tucked in the hills of southwestern Arkansas would never last long. However, the reputation of Commonwealth College lived long after its namesake, spread far beyond its Mena-area confines, and threatened to derail the political career of one of Arkansas’ most famous and notorious political figures before it got off the ground.
What started out as a small college for radicals and labor activists always found itself mired in controversy.Commonwealth College was started as an attempt to combine the principles of organized labor and socialist cooperative economics and set out to train a new generation of labor leaders. Unlike other colleges, Commonwealth was founded strictly to advance a political agenda.
It began in Leesville, Louisiana, in 1923, and eventually moved to Mill Creek Valley, some 13 miles west of Mena and near the Oklahoma state line, in April 1925. The potent mixture of labor politics and strong personalities running the college plagued its growth and administration for years. Enrollment at the college reportedly never rose past 55 students, but eventually some 22 buildings were constructed on the college campus, all by students.
In 1926, shortly after moving to the Mena area, the Arkansas Convention of the American Legion charged the college with being communist and demanded the school’s closure. Arkansas labor groups shunned it. Only FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s denial that the college had any communist ties saved the college. The Great Depression radicalized many students and faculty members, and founder William Zeuch was ousted in 1931 as too moderate. College leaders then proceeded to more actively align themselves with the Socialist Party in Arkansas. The Socialist candidate for Arkansas governor in 1932 was, in fact, Commonwealth instructor Clay Fulks. Fulks, however, lost in a landslide to Democrat Marion Futrell.
In 1940, the college was convicted in a Polk County court for refusing to fly the American flag during school hours and flying the Soviet communist hammer-and-sickle symbol instead. Fined $5,000 (nearly $85,000 in 2014 dollars), the college was unable to pay the fine and was unable to overturn the conviction on appeal. This, combined with the struggle for students and money, forced it to shut down. After the college’s closure, it became most well-known in the annals of Arkansas History as being the college attended by Gov. Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas from 1955 to 1967 who had fought to prevent school desegregation. His father, Sam Faubus, had been an outspoken Socialist in Madison County.
The future governor, apparently on his father’s suggestion, attended Commonwealth College briefly, though accounts from Faubus and other sources vary his time there from less than a semester to more than a year. As Faubus ran for governor in 1954, his attendance at Commonwealth was raised, and in the heated Cold War anti-communist atmosphere of the time, threatened his campaign. He condemned the college and said that he left as soon as he understood the nature of the college’s teachings. Faubus would never mention the college again while governor. Years after his political career, however, Faubus reportedly spoke quite favorably of the students and teachers at the college.