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Confront our troubled history April 19, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

Last week, state Sen. Joyce Elliott and Rep. Vivian Flowers introduced Senate Bill 674, an important piece of legislation in the Arkansas Legislature that will help the state reckon with our shared history of racial violence.

Across the world, people recognize that ignoring the past will not put it to rest. Rather than futilely trying to bury the past, research shows that conflict-affected communities need to confront troubled histories in order to ultimately promote healing and reconciliation. Histories of violence and repression need to be officially acknowledged and remembered as part of such processes.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson recognizes the need, as he proclaimed in January 2020 that "if we all dedicate ourselves to the principles of truth, racial healing and transformation, we can all bring about the necessary changes in thinking and behavior that will propel this great state forward as a unified force where racial biases will become a thing of the past ... ."

SB674 is critical for answering the governor's call.

The centerpiece of the legislation is the creation of the Unify Arkansas Commission, which would be tasked with "promoting truth and reconciliation relating to incidents of documented extrajudicial, racial, religious, and political injustice and violence" that occurred throughout Arkansas' history as a foundation for promoting truth and reconciliation among us.

The commission would be led by a team selected by the governor and the Legislature.

The period from the 1860s to the 1950s is marked by widespread racial violence that most Arkansans don't know about, let alone have adequately addressed. Among other things, Dr. Guy Lancaster's "Bullets and Fire" counts 492 documented lynchings in Arkansas, the fourth highest number behind Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Similar bodies have been established in dozens of countries around the world that have sought to address their own histories of violence. Perhaps most famous is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established in the mid-1990s to examine the country's apartheid era, a period of enforced racial segregation. The TRC's truth-telling effort is widely credited with helping the country balance competing justice demands and peacefully transition to all-race democracy.

Even in the U.S., we have a long history of using similar types of official bodies to help heal racial divisions. In the 1980s, a national commission examined the World War II-era internment and relocation of Japanese Americans. Maine established a commission to address the state's decades-long practice of forcibly removing children from Native American families in favor of white foster parents.

A similar body to what is in Senator Elliott's proposal is currently underway in Maryland, and several municipalities-- including Boston, Iowa City, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco--are debating or have already established their own truth commissions.

Furthermore, the legislation provides a mechanism through which the commission can recommend exoneration or other reparative measures for individuals who have been the victims of historical incidences of injustice or violence based upon race, religion, or political beliefs. This includes "the full posthumous exoneration of all 122 Black Arkansans who were wrongfully convicted of various crimes" in the aftermath of the 1919 Elaine Race Massacre.

SB674 contains additional provisions designed to encourage reconciliation and promote the mantra of "never again" by ensuring the past is not forgotten. For example, it would officially commemorate the National Day of Racial Healing in Arkansas, something Governor Hutchinson has led the nation on over the last two years.

In addition, the bill would introduce Elaine Remembrance Week, the first week of October, as official state memorial days. It also would promote healing by incorporating knowledge uncovered by the commission into the public school curriculum.

Finally, recognizing that patterns of violence vary considerably across Arkansas, the legislation would support the establishment of Community Remembrance Committees at the local level. These bodies can be effective in promoting awareness and understanding in communities around the state, much as the architects of the city-level initiatives mentioned above envision.

In short, the Legislature is considering several important pieces of legislation that will influence the promotion of knowledge and understanding across racial, ethnic, and religious divides in Arkansas.

To advance racial healing, call your representatives in the Arkansas Legislature and ask them to support SB674.

Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm is an associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Clarice Abdul-Bey is co-director of Washitaw Foothills Youth Media Arts and Literacy Collective; Kwami Abdul-Bey is co-convenor of the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement; and Donald Wood is the executive director of Just Communities of Arkansas.


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