Tuesday, May 13, 2014

And now "A Tale of Two Billboards" from the Ozarks

Part II of his series for NPR on the Ozarks has Frank Morris in Harrison, Arkansas, reporting on recent efforts by city leaders to end racism--and to end the city's reputation for racism.  Indeed, Morris reports on that very billboard I mentioned in my last post.  

Morris explains that Harrison was known as a "sundown town" a century ago because "riots and murder drove more than 100 black residents" from there, "making it a "perilous place for African-Americans after dark."  Morris reports that the city is now trying to make itself attractive to businesses, but its long-standing reputation as a "hotbed of hate" has created challenges.  That's one reason the mayor of Harrison and a Community Task Force on Race Relations have been taking action.  The town recently ceremonially "buried racism and hatred," according to the mayor.  Morris reports:
[T]he town … did it in style — with a funeral march, a handmade casket and civil rights speeches. 
The ceremony, attended by regional civil rights leaders and local residents, was part of a sustained effort here to press an uncomfortable conversation about race.
The task force has also put up billboards that proclaim, "Love Your Neighbor.  Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that." The latter part is a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  These billboards respond to another billboard that went up last fall--one that says "Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White."

You see, Harrison is dogged not only by its history, but by a couple of relative newcomers--both transplants from the West--who lead white supremacist organizations based there.  One is Thom Robb, who "runs" the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan through a post office box in Harrison. Robb himself lives in a neighboring community that Morris doesn't identify.  
Robb says he likes the name recognition the KKK label offers. He sells Klan shirts, hats and jewelry on his website. The three letters generate Web traffic for Robb, but headaches for the town. 
"Harrison isn't the only nice, white community in the country. There are many," [Robb]  says. "Harrison gets the attention because I happen to live here."
The other white supremacist featured is Mike Hallimore, director of Kingdom Identity Ministries, a group that believes "in the government of God on Earth--theocracy according to God's laws."
Those laws, he says, call for execution in cases of blasphemy, abortion or homosexuality. He preaches that Jews are descended from Satan and that only absolutely pure-blooded Caucasians enjoy what most would call a soul. 
The Southern Poverty Law Center says tens of thousands follow Hallimore's ministry online. Like most prominent white supremacists in the Ozarks, Hallimore is a transplant. He moved here from California.
Why Harrison?  Hallimore tells Morris:
I like rural living for one thing.  But of course I like that it's predominantly white.
Actually, Morris notes, Hallimore also lives outside Harrison.

A bit about Harrison.  Its population is 13,163, and it is the county seat of Boone County, population 37,396, which is 94.6% non-Hispanic White. (Contrast that with Carroll County to the west, which is 82.3% non-Hispanic white and includes a substantial Latino/a population, which I wrote about here).  Boone County's poverty rate is 15.8%, but it enjoys a nice vantage point as a hub among many ecotourism activities, including those associated with the Buffalo National River, and thriving Branson, Missouri, just about 40 miles to its north.

So, history aside (as if that were possible), is the problem with Harrison or with the hate-mongerers who have been drawn there, but whose following is not necessarily local?  Morris closes with this exchange, which seems to get at rural-urban difference:
"The United States of America is brimming with racial conflict," says [Leonard Zeskind, who researches hate crime groups]. "There are plenty of all-white neighborhoods in the suburbs of Northern cities." 
Racial conflict is one thing. But most of those cities don't have the intense concentration of hate groups, operating out of Ozark towns like Harrison.
On a related matter, I reported a few years ago on a federal conviction by a Harrison, Arkansas jury for the first conviction under the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  Read more here.

A happier national story mentioning Harrison is here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

First of all,The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is not a hate group!However,There are some who may lack education Just like Most Black Hate groups.The WKKKK believes that White America Should having the Self-Preservation it deserves!!!