Harrison, Arkansas embraces confederate history while trying to shed racist past

The small city of Harrison lies in the Ozarks region of northern Arkansas. It’s a generally unremarkable city, generally blue-collar and working class people living their lives and keeping a more or less low profile, except for one thing: It’s the capital of white supremacy in the nation right now.

The overwhelmingly white region wasn’t always so homogenous. Several tribes of Native Americans settles and battled over the area for hundreds of years before being driven out by westward expansionism, and black families were prevalent in the area until about a century ago when they were driven out by city leaders who claimed they were doing it as a means of crime prevention. The town continued to dissuade any and all nonwhites from moving in with tactics ranging from Jim Crow laws considered extreme even for the time and good old-fashioned intimidation. It’s this atmosphere that led to the modern Ku Klux Klan’s leader, Thomas Robb, to move to the area in the late 1980s and make it his current base of operations.

This had mostly been met with shrugs by most locals for, partially because many have historically been sympathetic to the KKK and many of the rest have been unable or unwilling to speak out due to fear of reprisals — be they economic or physical. But when White Pride Radio billboards became prevalent, drawing national attention, silence was no longer an option.

The billboards had links to white supremacist and white nationalist websites, and carried inflammatory slogans such as “diversity is white genocide” and “Anti-racism is code for anti-white.” Drawing international attention to the community, locals who were not keen on being linked with racist ideologies were now compelled to push back.

The first step was to erect billboards of their own near the racist signage, hoping to showcase the positives of their community. Small-scale demonstrations were also held, including a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in 2014 and the billboards were allowed to expire without renewal. But the damage had been done, and Harrison was labeled “America’s most racist town” by media domestic and foreign.

Peace March in Harrison to push back against white supremacists

Thinking the controversy had more or less blown over, local residents mostly moved on with their lives. But the resurgence in white nationalism during the 2016 election and continuing into the Trump administration has revitalized movements like the KKK, and Harrison has once again found itself getting pulled into the discussion.

Across the south, confederate monuments are being fought over, with many believing that the soldiers and leaders of the insurgency should be celebrated, or at least remembered, for having fought for their beliefs and died for their states. Opponents point out, however, that what the confederacy stood for was the right to keep slaves and were essentially traitors who were defeated.

Most southerners do not consider themselves racist, but they are also keen on giving due to the confederate soldiers they consider their forebears. They believe that slavery was not one of the most important issues of the Civil War, instead trying to make the esoteric case of states’ rights. But the slavery issue and ensuing century of racist segregation laws belie this argument — regardless of how modern people feel about it. The push for historic monuments to remain where they are nearly always degrades into a shouting match with accusations of treason and racism lobbed toward southerners, and charges of whitewashing the past and ignoring the other issues involved in the schism in the other.

A confederate tomb in New Orleans

Bringing Harrison decidedly back into the mire, Mayor Dan Sherrell and Boone County Judge Robert Hathaway joined together to proclaim June as Confederate History Month for the region in May 2017. Hoping to put a positive spin on the topic, they played up the family connections and the historical significance of Jefferson Davis’ birthday, making no mention of the racial implications.

No organized opposition has made any overarching statements about the new developments in Harrison yet, as most eyes in the battle over confederate monuments are focused on higher profile cities like Baltimore and New Orleans. But with white supremacy and white nationalism on the rise and the Klan’s already strong presence in the region, Harrison is sure to find itself a battleground again soon enough.

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