STUTTGART -- Some would say the Nonviolence Youth Summit held by the Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission was right on time as the community received the devastating news that one of its own students, Johnny Howard, 18, was identified as deceased and the latest victim of violence in Stuttgart.
Under Executive Director DuShun Scarbrough, the commission hosted educational sessions on nonviolence, anti-bullying, mental health and the importance of fatherhood during Stuttgart's Nonviolence Youth Summit featuring a presentation by renowned actor Lamman Rucker.
Open to the junior high and high school students, breakout sessions were had before coming together for the keynote sessions, also open to the public.
KLRT Fox 16 News and "Victory Over Violence" anchor Kevin Kelly spoke about bullying. Kelly challenged the students who admitted to being a bully to go and apologize to those who they bullied.
"This is where we start," Kelly said as students made their way to hug and handshake with one another. Taking an anti-bullying oath and pledging to say something if they see something, the moment of seriousness was followed by some comedic relief by Comedian Keith "Keef" Glason. Another highlight of the day was the presentation of the world-famous Rich-N-Tone duck calls to the guest as a welcome gift to the Rice and Duck Capital of the World.
Scarbrough gave his best efforts to blow the call to no avail, while Rucker managed to imitate the duck call sound receiving cheers from the crowd.
Rucker has appeared in daytime soap operas like "As the World Turns" and "All My Children," in movies like "The Temptations," Tyler Perry's films "Why Did I Get Married?", "Why Did I Get Married Too?", and "Meet the Browns," and on television as Jacob Greenleaf in the Oprah Winfrey Network drama series "Greenleaf" and the BET+ drama "The Black Hamptons," to name a few.
Rucker spoke about the value of fathers and mothers, respecting your bodies, and embracing and loving yourself as you are. He also spoke about the distorted reality of the entertainment industry and the lies it portrays that young people try to imitate, especially when it comes to gangs.
"I can tell you for a fact because I know some of these people," he said. "I know the agendas, I know the images and the fakeness that's going on throughout the industry. A lot of the men out here talk the way they talk; that's not even how they behave. They lying, fronting and scared to death trying to tell y'all they gangstas and then y'all out here trying to be gangstas following somebody who's lying to you."
Rucker, who told the students he has been in their shoes as a teen, said he was bullied, jumped and shot at.
"I've lost people that look just like you," he told the students, many who were grieving the loss of their schoolmate. "They fell into these traps."
Rucker said later that his personal experiences have influenced these conversations as he uses his platform to encourage young people, pushing them and challenging them with uncomfortable conversations of truth, sincerity and from the heart.
When it came to at-risk youth, Rucker said it is important that adults listen to children.
"I think we do a lot of correction and we don't do enough listening, even if the child's message is a bit rough around the edges," he said. "It's really important to understand that these young people have feelings."
He also had his thoughts about gangs and what it stems from.
"The gang issue, a lot of that is boys trying to father one another because some of our fathers aren't as present as they could or should be," said Rucker. "There are numerous reasons why that is the case, but also let's make sure that we are very careful about not just jumping on the bandwagon, particularly on Black and Brown fathers, who just aren't there and don't take care of their kids because that's foolishness, because a lot of fathers are there and present."
Rucker said kids must also not be put in positions where they have to act like an adult.
"It's about listening to these children, listening and creating an environment where they don't have to try to be the adult that they're not," he said. "Let's stop calling these young boys the man of the house when they're 12 just because things didn't work out with his father."
Very passionate about the subject, Rucker said he would like to come back to Stuttgart. Scarbrough said The AMLKC works directly with youths and others, encouraging them to embrace alternatives to violence and discover their common humanity.
"Through activities that stress racial and cultural diversity, the AMLKC offers Arkansans a new understanding of their important roles in the communities, now and in the future," he said. "The AMLKC is guided by Dr. King's mission and philosophy of love, tolerance and nonviolence. It strives for social improvement in Arkansas, helping communities and organizations achieve new leadership and public service levels."
Scarbrough said he is currently working with school officials in Pine Bluff to bring a nonviolence rally to the school district in the near future. The Pine Bluff School District has had several young people in the past year die or be injured from gun violence.
"Nonviolence and bullying awareness go hand in hand, and it is the commission's goal to work with the school districts to promote a culture of nonviolence that would encourage proactive measures to prevent bullying," said Scarbrough.
According to Stopbullying.gov, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says bullying diminishes a student's ability to learn and a school's ability to educate.
The mission of the Commission is to promote and preserve the life and legacy of King in the state of Arkansas.
Scarbrough also recognized leaders in Stuttgart during the Nonviolence Youth Summit who exemplify leadership, mentorship and volunteerism and those who have made significant strides in community service amongst the youths in their community: Joe Alexander Jr., Kylia Neasley, Jennifer White, Vincent White, Frank Bledsaw and Paul Colvin.
A special presentation was made to the Stuttgart High band, which performed at the state Capitol last week during the Commission's 30th anniversary celebration. Band director Kevin Sherman accepted a $500 check from the Commission, presented by state Rep. Jeremiah Moore.
Students also received laptop computers and gift cards during a crowd participation contest.
Special recognition was presented to Mayor Norma Strabala; Stuttgart School District Superintendent Jeff McKinney; Stuttgart High Principal Pam Dean; and Stuttgart Junior High Principal Latara Robinson. A partnership was also formed with the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce and the AMLKC.
"We were excited about the opportunity to host programming in Stuttgart and looking forward to the relationship we will build in Pine Bluff," said Scarbrough. "The Stuttgart residents and youth have done a tremendous job volunteering at events hosted by the Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission throughout the state. They've traveled with us to Washington, D.C., Dumas, Blytheville, and even Little Rock. The Commission looks forward to educating more young people about the King's legacy of nonviolence."