Once a person or place becomes stained publicly, it’s darn near impossible to shake the stigma, regardless of how overblown or unproven the smears.
They become defined not by all the good they do and have done, but according to their latest publicized event that reinforces the stigma. The dance becomes one step forward and two steps back.
That’s certainly the case in my hometown of Harrison, struggling for decades to overcome the image of a racist community largely because of events that occurred over a century past and a few intolerants who actually live outside the community.
The truth about Harrison, with its 13,000 residents nestled in the hub of the Ozarks: There are some narrow-minded bigots who live in and around the charming county seat.
Name me any community without such people. It’s inevitable there always will be small-minded (even mentally disordered) men and women in virtually any Arkansas community.
But how many communities of this size care enough about changing their image to form an active task force on race relations? How many have been honored by the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commission with its “Dream Keeper Award” for exhibiting compassion and tolerance?
How many Arkansas communities have hosted a statewide MLK youth peace conference and have an actual grave alongside their City Hall beneath a headstone reading, “Hate lies buried here”? I know because I grabbed a shovel and helped the former mayor fill it in after the sun had set on MLK festivities.
I’d venture to say not one city can boast of having such a heritage. Truth is, as I have written before, Harrison is blessed with good, compassionate and accepting people.
Yet it takes fewer than a handful of those bent on unjustly perpetuating the appearance of any town’s stereotype to act in ways that only feed a false narrative.
I’m talking about someone paying for one or two racially charged billboards on the outskirts of town that outrage most who live here. The town’s coffee groups are always discussing how disgusting the billboards are and how they serve to dampen all the good and positive things happening in town.
But then freedom of expression and opinion is an individual constitutional right. They can lease billboards with nonthreatening messages if they choose to pay for them just like the group that posted another saying “Diversity is a Code Word for Salvation.”
Those advertising don’t, however, have a right to try and make their community appear that everyone who calls this place home believes or acts as they do. That’s anything but the truth and for me it teeters somewhere between false advertising and libeling an entire community.
This false imaging occurred again the other evening during men’s and women’s basketball games between the local North Arkansas College and Labette Community College of Kansas.
A young reporter from the Parsons Sun in Kansas in his story painted a broad picture of the Labette team supposedly encountering racial chants.
The reporter referred to a video showing one person in the crowd cawing like a crow when black Labette team members were shooting free throws.
His account went on to say North Arkansas fans (sounding as if the hundreds in attendance were involved) supposedly made monkey noises directed at Labette players, often when the teams were on offense. The story in the Democrat-Gazette quoted the reporting by the Sun.
The Kansas paper’s report said crow calls have often been considered as a reference to Jim Crow laws, although no names were used, including who supposedly took the reported video of the purported events that provided fodder for the Sun’s story, and later in the Kansas City Star.
So, poof, just like that, all the years of hard work and plaudits from the King Commission become ignored like so much static over the supposed actions of a few obnoxious folks.
Afterward, North Arkansas College President Randy Esters said he was moving quickly to get to the bottom of what actually happened during the games. “I can tell you there was certainly nothing from our players or coaches or the crowd at large.”
I learned last week that an older avid supporter of the North Arkansas Pioneers teams has long had a habit of giving crow calls during games when opposing teams were shooting free throws. There’s nothing racial intended in his razzings, especially when half the Pioneers’ men’s team is comprised of nonwhite students. North Arkansas’ female team is about 25 percent nonwhite.
I also learned from Esters that no one from the Labette team, coaching staff, or even the president of that community college, complained to him about anything following that evening.
“I spoke with their president today and he’s enthusiastic about us continuing to play each other,” said Esters. “What’s discouraging when such things happen is to know how hard we and I personally have worked toward building diversity in our student body. The last thing we will have at this college is discrimination,” he said. “In fact, it’s just the opposite.”
Esters said the college’s student body of 1,500 is about 12 percent nonwhite. While Esters did review some video footage of the game to attempt to pinpoint what actually transpired and who was involved, he saw none of what the Sun reporter described. That newspaper also did not say who recorded the events.
“You can rest assured if we find whomever supposedly committed these acts, we will take appropriate actions to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” said Esters.
I’ve come to know Esters over the months since his arrival from Louisiana. I’ve found him to be bright, engaging and dedicated to making the community college the best in Arkansas on many levels. One goal has been in recruiting and valuing a diverse student body. He will get to the bottom of this latest unfortunate two steps backward.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at email@example.com.