- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2017

HARRISON, Ark. (AP) - For the past 14 years, a group of volunteers has worked to change Harrison’s reputation as a haven for white supremacists.

The documents the group generated will be preserved for historians and others to research in the future, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/2krUAwW ) reported.

Over the next couple of weeks, the papers of Harrison’s Community Task Force on Race Relations will be boxed up and hauled in a van to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 140 miles to the south.

They will be archived at the Center for Arkansas History and Culture so anyone can see them, said Deborah Baldwin, who is director of the center that will process the documents over the next two years.

Harrison has been haunted by its past. A century ago a white mob drove almost all of the black residents out of Boone County, and for the past 28 years the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan has been headquartered in a rural area 15 miles east of Harrison.

“Some call Harrison ‘the most racist city in the nation,’” George Holcomb, the task force’s secretary, wrote in his proposal to UALR. “The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies 22 hate groups in Arkansas. Eleven of those are headquartered in or near Harrison.”

Some of those 11 “hate groups,” such as KKK Radio, are entities affiliated with the Klan.

The task force disagrees with the depiction of Harrison as a city of racists.

The task force has had a unique role in Arkansas history. It was formed in 2003 to promote diversity and respond to racial-bias accusations against Harrison. The task force has served as a sort of quick-response crisis-communications team.

If they didn’t act, the task force members noted in their “core values” posted online, “Harrison may be perceived as a haven for white racists.”

As a result, tourism could be affected and the city’s economy could suffer. Harrison considers itself the gateway to the Buffalo National River, which is 14 miles to the south and draws more than 1.5 million visitors a year.

But the task force members don’t act out of economic concerns so much as love for their hometown.

According to the task force’s Facebook page, “Our purpose is to respond to an inaccurate, negative image, namely, that Harrison is a racist community.”

In the proposal, Holcomb wrote: “For 14 years, this group has pushed an agenda of neighborly love, inclusion and diversity in a community often represented as a capital of racism.”

The number of task force members fluctuates as people come and go. Holcomb said there are about two dozen task force members now and about 100 people on the mailing list. Some of them are “silent” members who aren’t publicly vocal but work with the task force in other ways.

People across America scapegoat Harrison, but recent political developments have made it obvious that racial bias is a national issue, wrote Holcomb.

Now, “it’s much harder to point fingers at Harrison, Arkansas,” said Layne Ragsdale, a founding member of the task force. “We’re not the story that we once were.”

Holcomb said the task force doesn’t want a few white supremacists speaking for Harrison.

“They’ve been trying to turn this into their white-man’s promised land for a long time,” he said. “I think more than anything it’s about making sure everybody in the community has a voice.”

In the proposal, Holcomb wrote that frank discussions within the community have helped people face facts they had long avoided, “that white supremacist groups who base their operations in this area are a real threat, that their beliefs are not a neighborly foible to be ignored.”

According to the 2010 Census, 34 of Harrison’s 12,943 residents were black.

Three members of the task force are black.

Alice Sanders, a black evangelist, moved to Harrison from Yakima, Washington, in 2010, after preaching at revivals in Boone County. She joined the task force shortly after the move.

Sanders said she learned of Harrison’s reputation after visiting the area and before deciding to move there.

“The Lord spoke to me and said, ‘You know, Alice, what you hear is not in the hearts of the people, it’s in the history of the town,’” she said. “I have not had any problems since living here. I’ve been treated with respect.”

Sanders doesn’t serve any particular church. She preaches at different churches around Harrison.

Sanders said she doesn’t mention race in her sermons. She tries to live by example.

“We can preach messages and preach messages until we pass out from preaching, but we need to be the message,” she said.

Archiving the papers is a good idea, said Sanders.

“They really labor to get the message of love out,” she said of the task force members.

Carolyn Cline, another task force member, said archiving the papers might help to open minds about Harrison.

“The task force and most of the people of Harrison have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “And yet it’s a habit of the hills not to toot our own horn. And so for us to take material and to make it available to an institution with great integrity in our state increases the likelihood that others will see the material and they will begin to think about the people of Harrison in a different way than perhaps they have in the past.”

Holcomb said the task force has made progress, but its mission must continue.

“I don’t know if the job ever gets finished,” he said. “I think that’s one of the misconceptions that’s hurting people in the United States right now. They think the civil rights movement was over the in ‘60s.”

By archiving its papers, the task force can tell its own story, said Baldwin, who also is interim provost at UALR.

“In a lot of ways, if you don’t save your documents, if you don’t create an understanding of your organization, you’re at the mercy of someone else to write about you in whatever way they choose,” she said. “In 50 years, no one’s going to know the work they’ve undertaken if they don’t think about archiving the work they’re doing.”

Baldwin met with four people from Harrison’s task force on Jan. 16, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and gave them a tour of the facility.

Holcomb said archiving the papers will be better than storing them where they are now.

“Over the course of all these years, we’ve gotten a lot of documentation scattered around in a lot of people’s laundry rooms and garages, and we were starting to lose things,” he said “The papers will be more accessible to us and other people under the archivist’s care.”

Holcomb isn’t sure how many papers the task force has. He estimated it as somewhere between six and 20 boxes.

The task force is unique because Harrison’s situation is unique.

In 1989, Thomas Robb, a resident of rural Boone County, became “grand wizard” of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of several Klan factions in the country.

Robb refers to himself now as national director of the Knights Party, a more mainstream sounding name for the Klan. According to its website, kkk.com, the Knight’s Party is “the premier voice of America’s white resistance.”

Although not located in Harrison, the Klan has used a post office box in Harrison as its mailing address.

Robb, who is pastor at Christian Revival Center in rural Boone County, said the task force is obsessed with “white guilt.”

“I don’t consider them my enemy, and we often have prayer at our church that these people, caught up in this white guilt complex, will once again learn to love their God and love their people,” Robb said in an email.

Harrison’s reputation on race predates Robb.

In 1905 and 1909, white mobs in what is known as the “Harrison race riots” resulted in more than 100 black residents fleeing Boone County, leaving only one black person - a woman - remaining, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. Members of minority groups have accounted for a very small portion of the county’s residents ever since.

With the advent of the Internet, Harrison residents discovered that a Google search for their city brought up references to the Klan.

Harrison residents believed that the area’s racist element was small but vocal in a way that grabbed headlines, primarily because of the Klan connection.

Ignoring the problem didn’t help.

After a series of articles examining the city’s racial issues appeared in the Harrison Daily Times, Mayor Bob Reynolds convened the task force in 2003 to study the situation.

The task force couldn’t find a similar organization in another city to use as an example to follow, so it had to rely on empirical research.

When a billboard went up in Harrison in 2013 that read “Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White,” the task force responded with a “Love Your Neighbor” billboard campaign.

The task force has worked with Arkansas’ Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, which held conferences in Harrison in 2012 and 2014, the latter of which attracted 300 people who marched in a symbolic funeral procession to bury hatred in front of a downtown fire station.

Holcomb said the task force’s papers include studies, newspaper articles, Klan publications, meeting minutes, agendas, drafts of position statements, discussions of local history, negotiation of its members’ common goals and approaches to issues, and planning documents for various community presentations, education displays and letters to other organizations.

Baldwin said the center will arrange and describe the materials and create a finding aid. With the online finding aid, researchers can pinpoint files that could be of interest to them. The archiving doesn’t entail digitizing each page for online viewing, Baldwin said.

Holcomb said he hopes the archived documents will be of use to other small cities working on race issues.

Holcomb said giving the papers to the center doesn’t mean the task force is winding down its operations. He hopes young people in Harrison will be interested in working with the task force and continuing its mission.

White nationalists in Boone County have consistently worked against the task force, posting signs after the task force had exhausted its resources to continue the billboard battle. “No wrong exits, no bad neighborhoods,” one billboard proclaims next to an image of a white family.

While it’s difficult to quantify the impact the task force has had, Holcomb thinks it has been positive.

“We think what we’re doing is important - not always as effective or as skilled as we wish, but always significant, sometimes groundbreaking,” he wrote to UALR. “We also think we have things to tell other people of goodwill who don’t know if they can go on. Things about persistence and patience, about staying together when parting would be so much easier. Things that didn’t work and things that did.”

Some other Arkansas cities have committees that deal with race issues, but their role is considerably different from the Harrison task force’s. The city of Little Rock, for example, has a Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission, which has a mission to ensure that all people in the city are free from discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, color or national origin.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com


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