The city of Harrison and Boone County are seeking to turn the page on its racist reputation. On Wednesday (Sept. 2), the two government entities signed mirror resolutions “promoting inclusiveness and mutual respect,” “denouncing all forms of racism, hate, and bigotry.”
The resolutions, urged by the Harrison Chamber of Commerce, encourage “the Arkansas legislature to introduce and pass” hate crime legislation.
“In four short paragraphs, the Harrison City Council and Boone County Quorum Court have powerfully condemned racism, hate, and bigotry,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “With words that are simple and direct, the leaders of the city and county are sending the unambivalent message that the time has come for Arkansas to enact hate-crime legislation. 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.”
Harrison has a history of racial intolerance. Like many communities in the south, there were race riots in the early 1900’s. In the late 20th century, the region was a hotbed of white supremacy groups. Thom Robb, national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, lives about 15 miles east of Harrison, but has used a Harrison P.O. Box for mail. The KKK is not headquartered in Harrison.
According to the U.S. Census, Harrison is a city of nearly 13,000. The racial makeup of the city is 96.2% White, 2.2% Hispanic, and 0.3% Black.
A billboard heading into the city once read, “Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.” Supporters seeking to improve the city’s image erected a competing billboard that read, “Love Your Neighbor.”
The board of directors of the Harrison Chamber of Commerce voted unanimously in early August to encourage passage of the resolutions by the Harrison City Council and Boone County Quorum Court. Melissa Collins, principal broker at Weichert, Realtors-Market Edge and chair of the chamber board, said the action was “the right thing for our community to do.”
“Simply put, there is zero tolerance for hate speech in our community,” she said. “The joint actions today signal that and a major unifying effort of our elected officials. This speaks volumes for our business, industry and economy.”
City, county and chamber leaders also announced their intent to empower a nine member panel composed of their respective constituents, to identify opportunities and develop initiatives that will promote local diversity and inclusion. They said the panel would begin work before the end of September.
Scott Hamilton, CEO of the Urban League of Arkansas, said the move is “an excellent step forward” and he hoped it would encourage other municipalities to consider.
“We all know that certain parts of our state have reputations that may not be warranted, but they are what they are. Publicly supporting actions such as a hate crime bill is important. It shows a courageous effort on the leadership of those communities to make statements that people need to hear. It also gives comfort to other communities that may be given consideration,” said Hamilton, whose organization works for equal opportunities for all citizens with a concerted focus on the areas of health, education, jobs, and housing.
“There’s power in numbers, and if more communities will do such, the sooner we can begin to make significant changes in our state,” he added.