HARRISON, Ark. — It’s been marked as one of the most racist cities in the United States. However, the city of Harrison, Arkansas, has been working with the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission for a decade to banish its dark past for good.

The group held a “2022 MLK Birthday Bash” on Friday at the Harrison High School Goblin Arena to celebrate King’s life.

“We chose to have an MLK Birthday Bash right here in Harrison, Arkansas,” said DuShun Scarbrough, executive director of the Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission. “This is our 10th year anniversary working with Harrison in order to help change the stigma that hovers over the city.”

Two race riots in the early 20th century and an influx of white supremacist organizations during the late 20th and early 21st centuries caused a number of sources to call Harrison the most racist town in America.

Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. thinks the Ozark area– particularly Harrison– has consistently been home to hate, patriot, and militia groups over the decades.

Harrison used to be known as a “sundown town,” where Black Americans faced the threat of death if they were outside after dusk. In 2021, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed the following hate groups as having ties to Harrison:

  • Christian Revival Center (led by Knights of the KKK leader Thom Robb)
  • Kingdom Identity Ministries (founded in Harrison)
  • Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (headquarters located in Zinc, Arkansas)
  • League of the South

Robb has been leading the KKK since the 1980’s when former grand wizard David Duke stepped down. Robb recently began calling his organization “The Knights Party” in an attempt to emphasize what he sees as the need for a softer, more political approach.

Scarbrough has been working with city leaders in Harrison to educate the community and promote equality. At the beginning of their partnership, it looked like the City of Harrison was going to bury its history of racism. However, the city took ten steps back when a video of negative reactions to a man holding a Black Lives Matter sign went viral.

“That video that was totally untrue set us back,” said Mayor Jerry Jackson. “Now we have to fight harder to tell the state, the nation, and the world that Harrison is a warm and a welcoming community to all.”

Jackson says that the video doesn’t represent what Harrison is about at all. “There we 24 people in that video that made horrible comments and we could only identify three,” said Jackson. “Those people were not from Harrison.”

Jackson says he’s been fighting to get rid of the stigma for 40 years and is seeing a positive change. He also told students to be proud that Harrison is their city.

“Kids when they leave and go away, a lot of them are embarrassed to say that they are from Harrison because of our reputation,” said Jackson. “I ask them to stand up and to tell other people that they are from Harrison and to be proud of Harrison. Let them know that Harrison is not a racist community.”

Students say they learned so much at Friday’s event and realize the magnitude of Martin Luther King Jr.’s impact on society.

“You get to learn more about how brave he was,” said J. Henry Grant, a student at Harrison High School. “One of the speakers mentioned prison 20 times in a very short amount of time. It shows that putting other people first was his main priority.”

“Back in October, we pushed the reset button here in order to establish better relationships throughout the state of Arkansas,” said Scarbrough. “I’m so proud of Harrison. I credit not only working with the MLK Commission but the Harrison Task Force in Race Relations. They have done a great job in helping establish credibility here and promoting not only the legacy of Dr. King but working with everyone in diversity and promoting unity with all.”