HARRISON, Ark. (CNS) — Harrison was again the center of local and national attention when a racially charged billboard was erected with a white girl holding a dog pictured and stating, “It’s not Racist to (Heart) Your People.”
It lists a “White Pride Radio” website, which leads to information on the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group that has targeted blacks, immigrants, Catholics and Jews.
Thom Robb, who runs the Knights of the KKK, lives outside the city. With a local KKK chapter also present, a widespread reputation of racism lingers to outsiders.
However, Mayor Jeff Crockett, city officials and church leaders have worked hard to combat that stigma in recent years by creating a race relations task force to show that the hate group does not speak for everyone in Harrison.
“None of us that I know of like it,” Deacon Mark Scouten of Mary Mother of God Church in Harrison said of the KKK billboard erected in December. “We’ve been trying to figure out what to do about it; like the rest of the town, we’re at a total loss.”
The city has been plagued by its reputation of being against minorities for more than 100 years. In 1905 and 1909, it was reported that white mobs chased nearly every black person out.
Deacon Scouten said all minorities are welcome at Mary Mother of God Church and those who do attend are “very well-liked in the parish.”
“The only thing I can tell anybody is until you get to know the place, the town and the people in the area, don’t make assumptions,” he said in an interview with the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock.
“We can go into any town in Arkansas, in the United States, and find racist bigots. It’s just the grand wizard of the KKK is here, and he is more vocal and has money and is able to spread it more. Hate breeds hate. … So it’s really hard to fight it with love and understanding, which is what we’re trying to do, but people are afraid. Instead of taking the chance and seeing what it’s like, they just say, ‘They’re a bunch of racist hicks from Harrison’ and we’re not.”
The key for those within the Catholic faith is to keep evangelizing and spreading church teaching of love and prayer to stop racist intolerance, but that can’t silence others, Scouten said.
“If anybody could come with a concrete idea on how to fight this, we’d help but things like this have been going on for hundreds of years and nobody has a solution to it,” Scouten said of the KKK spreading hateful messages in Harrison. “If one came up, we’d step behind it.”
Several other white supremacist groups, including Kingdom Identity Ministries, have ties to the Ozark Mountain region.
According to 2010 census data, 96 percent of Harrison residents identify themselves as white. Only 34 of the city’s 12,493 residents identify themselves as black.
Hanson is associate editor of the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock.