You know, there have been a great number of folks from our corner of the country who have made Arkansas and the U.S. a better place to live, and today, I’d like to talk a little bit about Elizabeth (Betty) Bumpers. From desegregation to childhood immunizations, Betty has influenced history, making huge strides, even working towards world peace. A hardworking activist for many years, once she set her mind to something, she was bound and determined to see it through.
Born in 1925, Betty was raised in Franklin as well as in Sebastian County, here in Arkansas. She became an elementary school teacher at a young age and later she married Dale Bumpers, a lawyer, when she was 24. Dale is a person of great import as well; he was both governor of Arkansas and a U.S. Senator. The two of them were very involved in issues of desegregation and in the betterment and the welfare of children.
Once her husband became governor here in Arkansas in the early 1970s, Betty took her experience as a teacher with her to the capitol and this led her to pursue a solution to a longstanding problem. Enrollment for elementary-age children, especially for first grade, was low, and this was due, in large part, to childhood diseases. Betty proposed that all children in Arkansas needed to receive immunizations to prevent the spread of disease. Treating children for debilitating and often life-threatening diseases is a heartbreaking situation, especially when there was a way to prevent them from becoming infected in the first place.
The first time a child is exposed with an antigen (for example, the measles virus), his or her immune system produces antibodies in order to fight it. Immune systems are really amazing, to be honest. Anyway, this response from the immune system does takes some time and often the immune system cannot produce these antibodies fast enough to prevent the child from becoming sick—but the immune system has a “memory,” for the lack of a better term, and “remembers” the measles virus. Should the child become exposed to the measles again, the immune system is ready to fight it off and this time, no one gets sick.
Betty’s campaign to see every child in Arkansas immunized immediately drew nation-wide attention as well as the support of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). Other states within the U.S. began to take heed from her actions and, with her help, they too began to work to put a universal system in place for child immunizations.
What integrity, to pursue this course single-mindedly; there was no prerequisite, and she charted the course.
During all of this, her husband, Dale Bumpers, finished his office as governor and then ran and was elected for the U.S. Senate. This helped the immunization campaign tremendously. First Lady Rosalynn Carter was very interested in Betty’s work in orchestrating the immunization movement, and the two First Ladies worked together, side by side with the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (though at that time, this was called the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare).
Later, in the early 1980s, after Jimmy Carter’s term as president was over, Ronald Reagan was elected as president; with Reagan’s presidency, distrust between the U.S. and Russia grew to great heights. Betty sought to only find common ground with the Russian populace instead of perpetrating discord between the two countries. Betty, along with other wives of congressmen, started Peace Links. The ladies of Peace Links felt that outreach was what was needed to overcome the sensationalizing fear of nuclear war. Peace Links, which grew to include ladies from across the U.S. as well as in Europe, reached out to women in Russia, women, they felt, who were very much like themselves. Their diplomatic attitude helped to defuse a combustible situation.
More about the Peace Links organization next week.