“It’s Okay to Be Rude to Terrorists”: Righting Wrongs in the Ozarks

Harrison, Arkansas Part 2  

When four members of the town’s racial task force welcomed George and me into the meeting room at the Harrison Chamber of Commerce, we new immediately it was going to be okay.  We just didn’t know it was going to be wonderful.

Maybe they’d been armed for bear, too, with snooping Northerners requesting this very meeting—only to bring more torment for their town?  But their good humor, the warmth of their welcome and the sincerity of their tone made us all relax.

There might be grim comedy to this, the best hearts and minds in the all-white town trying desperately to reconnect to African Americans and getting nowhere because… well, whites had expelled the blacks over a hundred years before.  But it wasn’t funny.  Later I read some of the postings on articles about the billboard and felt what the task force was up against.  In anonymous comments, citizens sparred with citizens over references to white power.  Many posts showed deep confusion about white privilege in our country, an unexamined feeling of betrayal, and that whites were superior, yet under attack:

“If white people had a country of our own, none of this would be happening.

       Racist white people lost the Civil War. Get over and stop being a whining b*tch!

Racist? You just call them that because they are white, that makes you anti-white. The greatest racists of our time is in power now, and they intend to use their power to make sure the are no white children in the future.”

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On our visit, Harrison’s notorious new billboard was just another giant anonymous posting shouting over the town, the exact author or group sponsor unknown.  Ironically, the task force measured its success in the wider community’s reaction to the billboard’s message. Phones lit up from random citizens demanding, “What are we going to do about it?” and in came donations from random folks, with letters objecting to the new billboard. Layne took that as validation of the task force’s place in the town’s consciousness as the go-to people to combat outbreaks of racism that shamed the community, insisting, “that’s the real story of Harrison.”

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Of course, many people in Harrison suspected the Klan was behind the billboard. Nate explained that stirring up conflict was “the mating call of white supremacists” and wondered if global white power fanatics might be behind it, hiding racism behind accepted values. Such was the racists’ success at rebranding that a local Latina picked up a Klan flyer at a local event just to be polite.

All four task force members sighed in mutual exasperation.  “We had to tell her,” Layne said, “that’s it’s okay to be rude to terrorists.”

Their candor pushed the meeting beyond small-town boosterism.  I swear, it was something almost spiritual, which is hard for a non-spiritual, non-religious guy like me to admit. (In fact, for Patty, who was also the Chamber president, racial reconciliation was “almost a calling.”) To me, long-fallen Catholic, their work on the task force to improve racial relations had led them to embrace concepts similar to (gulp) Christian redemption.  Not your usual Chamber of Commerce project.

It had been a long project, too, going back ten years, and without advisors or mentors.  The task force found its way alone in the dark to overcome Harrison’s reputation.  Their approach, after some stumbles, was simply to seek, then share, the light.  “It’s just us, trying things out, nothing more,” explained Carolyn, who touched me with her quiet pride in the themes they’d gathered and settled on through the years—“Prepare our Community, Proceed with Civility and Respect, Reach Out in Reconciliation.”

George, ever the community activist, gently challenged the group to explain exactly they’d done to Reach Out.  A lot, it turned out—prodding the community to celebrate MLK day, inviting speakers, encouraging links between Harrison students and diverse counterparts out there in the “real world.” But even Love Your Neighbor activities and peace forums didn’t guarantee success.  They couldn’t engage the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a brainstorm about connecting black pastors hit a wall because Harrison had no black pastors. “I don’t know what do then,” Carolyn said of her failed outreach, repeating, “It’s just us, trying things out, nothing more.”

After our conversation and a whirlwind tour of Harrison’s town center, George and I found the scenic route to Little Rock, our next stop.  Arkansas Highway 7 lived up to its promise as one of the most mind-blowing drives in the state, “if not the world.”  As we crested over Ozark ridges exploding into autumn, I felt again the South’s seductive pull.  It wasn’t just the scenery, though, but these encounters with Southerners doing their best to make the world a better place.  They confronted the wrongs of their history, I thought, with more honesty and positive action than most Northerners.

It would be easy for any writer to play up stereotypes, whether those mired in Southern racism and its real hardships, or those of Southern hospitality and gracious living. That’s all just red meat to throw at Northerners, reassuring us in our smugness that the South is “special,” and “different,” like some brain-damaged stepchild.  Even in these blogs I go for the catchy titles and clichéd lures about grits and the Klan. But everywhere in the real South there were people who really were special, moving forward, brave and persistent enough “to try things out, nothing more.”

Nothing more than the best we all can do.

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About Lee Patton

I'm creating three sites: Comic Relief in Trump Time; Stripper at the Funeral: The First Fifty Plus Poems, and The South Within Us. In The South Within Us, with my Denver writing partners Kristen Hannum and George Ware, I'm closing in on the last phase of our journey for our narrative non-fiction project THE SOUTH WITHIN US: WESTERNERS EXPLORE SOUTHERN IDENTITY. Kristen and I are alternating chapters, she with her strong Southern family connections, I with few personal links to the South, as we uncover what the American South means to us and its place in our national heritage. As an African-American community activist searching for his long-lost Southern roots, George provides perspective and balance.

2 responses to ““It’s Okay to Be Rude to Terrorists”: Righting Wrongs in the Ozarks”

  1. GWare says :

    Lee, I just want to echo your perspectives regarding the efforts that are underway to change hearts and minds in Harrison. I admit to being more than a little uncomfortable when we first arrived in town. It was pretty evident to me that Harrison is not a place where black people are seen everyday. I recall feeling uncomfortable at the first restaurant we visited when the young hostess awkwardly gave us a menu. I hope we didn’t give her the satisfaction of thinking that her cold reception was the reason why we left before being seated rather than the limited number of menu items that met your dietary restrictions. (It must be fairly difficult for locals to dine out if they abstain from eating red meats and chicken).

    At the Chinese restaurant where we did decide to eat, the wait staff was very friendly and accommodating. Of course, by then my antennae were up to detect any signs of differential treatment based on my race. Seems one couldn’t win for losing with me by that point – reserved and I’m ready to describe you as a racist and warmly welcoming and I’m thinking that you’re a phony and just don’t know how to interact with a black person. I guess that’s just par for the course in a town with Harrison’s history. Simple things that I take for granted living in Colorado become a big deal in a place where African Americans were forced to leave. Suffice it to say, I felt the need to watch my back a bit more carefully while in Harrison.

    One bright spot during our meal was the local Iraq War vet who approached our table accompanied by his service dog. He related that he had experienced physical and emotional distress as a result of PTSD and that his dog had been a great find in helping him successfully manage and cope. He approached our table to let me know how much he thought I looked like President Obama followed by his wife who apologized for his intrusion on our meal but knew he was determined to shake my hand. She took a picture of that handshake and promised to post it on her Facebook page. (My apologies to the President, who’s a lot better looking and smarter than I, but I get that reaction quite a bit).

    The next morning spent with members of the group seeking reconciliation with African Americans was indeed inspiring. I have to admire their tenacity and courage in seeking to address past wrongs done to African Americans and create a town where all are welcome. I also recognize the long uphill struggle that they have undertaken especially when so few people of color live in town. It’s difficult to have a conversation when a significant participant in that conversation is missing from the table. But, at least they are trying to engage in constructive conversations that although necessary are not happening in many other parts of the country.

  2. Mell McDonnell says :

    Lee, George, Kristen–
    I admire the depth of your research. It’s hard to scratch the surface and find that stereotypes are true, ever so true, and then–they’re not. Or at least there’s so much more to know and understand. Lots to reconcile.
    Mell

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