The Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement will host its fifth annual National Day of Racial Healing on Tuesday, following Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday holiday.
Launched by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2017 as a part of its national Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation efforts, communities throughout the nation will also come together in support of the national day.
Kwami Abdul-Bey and his wife, Clarice, decided to start the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement after seeing Kwami's great-uncle's name memorialized at the Equal Justice Initiative Lynching Museum in Montgomery, Ala.
"My grandmother's oldest brother, Lonnie Dixon, is the youngest person in the state of Arkansas to go to the electric chair," Kwami Abdul-Bey said. "He went to the electric chair in May of 1927 when he was falsely accused of killing a white girl, Floella McDonald, and without adequate legal defense, he was executed a couple of weeks later on his 16th birthday."
As a former social studies teacher at Little Rock's Henderson Junior High School, Kwami Abdul-Bey began a nonprofit organization called the Washitaw Foothills Youth Media Arts and Literacy Collective after his students expressed frustration over a 1994 HBO documentary "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock."
"I look at other states like Texas, where state history is a big thing, but state history is not a big thing here," he said. "I wanted to get into promoting Arkansas history as a public historian myself, and at the same time, learning more about that difficult history that is not in any textbook."
Clarice Abdul-Bey also has familial ties to the Jim Crow era as her great-grandfather fled to Chicago during the Elaine Massacre in 1919 when sharecroppers demanded better pay. A shooting at a meeting of the newly formed Progressive Farmers and Household Union escalated into days of mob violence by white people, resulting in hundreds of Black people killed, according to the Arkansas Encyclopedia.
"Their issue was fairness, equity and justice," she said, referring to Black farmers. "It's pretty much the issues still now in the state, but I know that they fled and left. My grandfather did not return until he was around 37."
Their personal history connecting them to racial violence "sealed it" for the Abdul-Beys to create and honor a culture of remembrance due to the state's difficult history, she added.
In 2019, Arkansas celebrated the first statewide observance of the National Day of Racial Healing in coordination with Just Communities of Arkansas. Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a gubernatorial proclamation of the day, which was followed by mayoral proclamations from Cammack Village, North Little Rock and Wrightsville; a proclamation from Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde; and one from then-Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore.
Gov. Hutchinson issued proclamations for each of his administration years, and through a new partnership with the Arkansas Municipal League and the University of Central Arkansas in 2021, the number of mayoral proclamations from throughout the state reached 132. Those proclamations were joined by 16 county judges, nine college presidents/university chancellors, and four school districts.
"The overarching goal is to memorialize the 493 documented victims of racialized terror lynching here in the state of Arkansas, with the state of Arkansas having the third highest number of racialized terror lynching, that we know of," Kwami Abdul-Bey said. "With us partnering with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, we thought that adopting the National Day of Racial Healing would give us an opportunity to do that same thing of promoting and observing on an annual basis, the true racial, healing and transformation, but also give us an opportunity to highlight the work that we do in that space, connecting Arkansas' dark, dark past with its current present with a vision for the future."
In a news release, the Abdul-Beys stated that 2021, the observance that followed what they termed "The Summer of Resistance" during which George Floyd was murdered, was the most active year for National Day of Racial Healing in Arkansas with well over 5,000 attendees at 12 different virtual free events in a four-day period.
This year's celebration is themed "Intentionally Creating MLK's Beloved Community Here in Arkansas," with 19 free events scheduled to take place over six days concluding with an inaugural Civic Saturday Gathering at the Arkansas State Capitol on Saturday morning. A list of events is available here or at https://apjmm.org/event/.
Eric Loiu, a speech writer and, later, a deputy domestic policy adviser during the Bill Clinton presidential administration, started a nonprofit for civic engagement and inspired the Civic Saturday activities.
"We decided that if we're going to intentionally promote Martin Luther King's beloved community, we have to have a civic engagement component where people are given a list of action steps," Kwami Abdul-Bey said. "We're going to have this really big celebration at the state capitol on the second-floor rotunda on Saturday from 11 to 1 with music and dance and poetry."
The Memorial Movement's statewide high school poetry and art contest winners will be announced after a presentation and each will be awarded $300.
On Jan. 12, Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde sent out a news release proclaiming Jan. 17 as the "National Day of Racial Healing" for the fifth year in a row.
Hyde will present the proclamation and speak on the importance of racial healing at a news conference on Tuesday at the Arkansas Municipal League commemorating the day.
The news release stated that the proclamation emphasizes that residents must "work judiciously and earnestly to heal the wounds created by racial, ethnic, and religious bias and to build an equitable and just society so that all can prosper."
Kwami Abdul-Bey reached out to Gov. Hutchinson's former chief of staff Alison Williams to ask if their administration could contact Gov. Sarah Sanders about signing a proclamation for this year's National Day of Racial Healing when the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement didn't hear back. He was told that their administration has no influence over Sanders'.
"We don't expect it to be issued, particularly with the executive order on critical race theory," he said.
As an independent paralegal and an elections coordinator for the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Kwami Abdul-Bey noticed that the order was written "for a court challenge," but, critical race theory itself is never defined in the order.
"How are you going to ban something that you never defined?" he asked.
Kwami Abdul-Bey also mentioned that he had just spoken with the Fort Smith Chief of Police, Danny Baker, who said he will issue a memorandum for his police force in honor of the National Day of Racial Healing. This will make him the first police chief in the state, and nationally to do so.
Kwami Abdul-Bey said the Fort Smith Chief of Police, Danny Baker said he will issue a memorandum for his police force in honor of the National Day of Racial Healing. This will make him the first police chief in the state and nationally to do so.
Not only will participants in the movement's events be meeting with people in their state, but with those in Atlanta, Virginia, Washington D.C. and Texas due to partnerships with many organizations, Kwami Abdul-Bey said.
This year, the Memorial Movement is especially excited about its partnership with the U.S. Department of State because it will bring dignitaries from African countries and Haiti to meet with Arkansans on Wednesday to discuss civil rights and human rights on a global scale. A free full-course African meal will be served to attendees.
"We're the only state where we get dozens and dozens and dozens of mayors and county judges and superintendents that issue proclamations along with the governor on this National Day on Racial Healing," Kwami Abdul-Bey said. "So it lets you know that there is hope here in Arkansas, and even though it may be difficult, it's not impossible for us to realize that beloved community."
Clarice Abdul-Bey said the hope for the movement's events is to try to build bridges and connect to people on a human level.
"Hopefully, these events and these talks plant seeds that will grow or germinate throughout the years and it'll be something that comes sort of second nature with us trying to work together as a community," she said. "Arkansas is so beautiful, it's one of the most beautiful states, we have beautiful parks, and I feel like if ... our social and political climate was that our natural climate, we would be so much better off."