Charles Nelson, a former educator with the Pulaski County School District, pointed toward a building at the corner of Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive and Cross Street and remarked how he remembered seeing the troops who escorted the Little Rock Nine being stationed in the field near the current Arkansas Dream Center.
"The troops were stationed in the area we used to play in," Nelson said, pointing out of a charter bus window. "There was about 175 troops out there and they would drive around with the machine guns on their vehicles and the bayonets out."
Nelson was a tour guide for the Hope and Fury Heritage Bus Tour, one of many activities that gave Arkansans an opportunity to reflect on the state's past, ponder their present and hope for a brighter future by honoring the life of civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
During the cold, early morning hours Monday, dozens of Arkansas leaders gathered at St. Mark Baptist Church on West 12th Street for an annual Martin Luther King Jr. interfaith prayer breakfast.
"Prayer was Dr. King's secret weapon in the civil-rights movement," Tiffany Pettus, emcee for the event, said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, U.S. Rep. French Hill, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and several others participated.
Hutchinson would later speak to a large crowd gathered at the Faulkner County library in Conway about the Legislature's vote two years ago to separate the celebration of King's birthday from that of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
"It was the right thing to do," Hutchinson said "What we saw as a potentially divisive fight became a unifying force."
Hutchinson noted that King was a civil-rights leader during "a time of struggle in our nation," and said, "I am not sure that we have yet reached" the place King dreamed of in America.
"There are some who believe that Dr. King was not loyal to America," Hutchinson said. "But in my judgment, he ranks with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln."
Referring to comments before he took the podium, Hutchinson said that on days such as this one Americans can benefit from "provocative" speeches.
The governor said later that he "thought all the speakers ... were provocative in terms of making people think and see different points of view." He said that applies to his own remarks as well and that his comment "was not directed at any one particular person."
Back in the capital city, Little Rock residents took part in a "Marade," an annual parade that honors Martin Luther King Jr.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. -- who took office on Jan. 1 and is Little Rock's first popularly elected black mayor -- walked at the front of the parade and handed out candy to kids.
As he walked up, the children said "He's our mayor?"
The parade featured old and new Corvettes, a green trolley, high school bands, fire fighters, churches and a man dressed in Wakandan fashion based off a popular comic book movie.
Wrapped up against the cold, Martin Luther King Day volunteer Samir Kabaou listens as the history of the Oakland & Fraternal Historic Cemetery Park is presented in east Little Rock. Cleaning up the cemeteries was part of the Mosaic Templars day of service activity Monday.
LOCAL SCHOOL BOARD
Anthony Bland, a member of the Little Rock NAACP, advocated for regaining local school control. This month marks the four-year anniversary of the 2015 state takeover of the Little Rock School District because six schools at the time had chronically low percentages of students scoring at proficient levels on state math and literacy exams.
In addition to removing the superintendent, the state removed the popularly elected School Board. The state education commissioner, who serves as the board, appoints the district's superintendent.
"When did democracy become a dictatorship?" Bland said.
Bland also said the King holiday is needed to remember a legacy.
"Right now in Washington, D.C., and in our local government we're not holding them accountable for the content of their character," Bland said. "We must unite if I want to make a difference. The legacy has never died. We just don't have enough people that's willing to fight for the legacy. Martin Luther King always said a person that stays silent is worse than a person who's doing that work. So, are you willing to stay silent?"
LITTLE ROCK NINE
Little Rock's connection to King and the civil-rights movement has been documented with stories of the Little Rock Nine, the group of black students who enrolled at Central High School in 1957.
But there are stories hidden in plain sight all around the city, and the bus tour helped uncover some of the past.
The tour visited various historic sites besides Central High School including Horace Man Magnet Middle School, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the First Missionary Baptist Church, Daisy Bates Home and National Historic Site, Dunbar Middle School and Philander Smith College.
"In 1963 Martin Luther King spoke at First [Missionary] Baptist Church and the Bible King used is on display inside," Nelson said.
The Central High museum was closed because of the shutdown, but tour participants got to go inside the former home of Arkansas civil-rights icon Daisy Bates.
The 1,800-square-foot ranch-style home served as the command post for civil-rights activists during the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation, and Bates mentored the Little Rock Nine.
"I just wanted to come see a part of Arkansas I haven't experienced," tour participant Darlene Montgomery said. "I am from south Arkansas and I wanted to see with my own eyes the places that I have heard of in stories and have it serve as a reminder of the shoulders we stand on today."
SCARS OF ARKANSAS' PAST
Forgotten history seemed to be a theme of the bus trip as each turn would bring back some of the ghosts of Arkansas' past.
"When I was a kid, blacks would have to go through the white neighborhoods to get to Horace Mann, Capitol Hill School or Dunbar," Nelson said. "We would walk 6 miles to school and get into fights with the students at Central High School and then fights with the students at Westside. Then we would do it again once school was over."
The restored Mosaic Templars Cultural Center stands on West Ninth Street at Broadway, but the history surrounding the buildings has long been erased.
"The Ninth Street area was a place for enterprising black businesses. Colleges, barbers, pharmacies, movie theaters and more were on Ninth Street. It was a thriving economic force," Nelson said, pointing at what are currently patches of grass. "As you can see it is no longer what it used to be."
The scars of some of Arkansas' dark history has also been forgotten to time, as well.
"African-Americans were lynched in the 1920s right in the middle of Broadway Street," Nelson said as the bus rolled on. "Over at the funeral home next to Zion Church, a black man was killed and his body was drug through the streets on the black side of town before it was thrown in a pond at the funeral home."
Shonna Amos, a Little Rock native, said she took two younger family members, 20-year-old Kaydrinna Smith and 5-year-old Madison Sanders, with her on the tour because she wanted to educate them on black culture.
"You always hear the stories, but I wanted them to get the first-hand experience," Amos said. "You can never be too young to learn."
Information for this article was contributed by Alex Gladden and Debra Hale-Shelton of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Metro on 01/22/2019
Print Headline: Arkansans recall civil-rights giant