LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Community leaders in an Arkansas region that has struggled with racism and white supremacists over the years on Wednesday endorsed an effort by the governor and lawmakers to enact a hate crimes law.
The leaders of Harrison and surrounding Boone County signed resolutions denouncing bigotry and racism, and urging state lawmakers to pass “substantive, comprehensive” hate crimes legislation. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson and a bipartisan group of legislators earlier this month unveiled a proposal to enhance penalties for crimes motivated by the victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation or other factors.
“I am hoping now that our community can come together, respect everyone and move forward in one positive direction,” Harrison Mayor Jerry Jackson said at a ceremony with Boone County’s judge and the head of the Harrison Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Harrison, which has a population of about 13,000 was the site of riots in the early 1900s that drove out most of its black population. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of several Klan factions, uses a Harrison post office box for its mailing address and its national director lives in a nearby town.
Billboards with white supremacist messages have appeared in the city over the years. The city’s leaders have said their reputation is being unfairly tarnished by a small group of people, and have tried to counter the messages with their own “Love Your Neighbor” billboards.
Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes law, and the proposal has the backing of major companies including Bentonville-based Walmart. South Carolina and Wyoming are the other states without a hate crimes law.
Past efforts to pass hate crimes legislation in Arkansas have stalled over opposition to a law against crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity. Some conservative lawmakers in the majority-Republican Legislature have signaled opposition to the latest effort on similar grounds.
Hutchinson praised the city and county for their resolutions.
“I commend Boone County for affirming that we are at the point in our history that we must hold to a greater degree of accountability those people whose violent acts against another are born of a hatred for their victims’ race or religion,” Hutchinson said in a statement.
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