To Love Your People: Ways to Counter The Russellville KKK-Sponsored Billboard

 

billboard

This column was originally published in the Courier newspaper in Russellville, Arkansas.

Russellville has been in national news in recent weeks over a billboard recently placed at Exit 81. It reads “It’s NOT racist to love your people.” There’s a link to something called “White Pride Radio,” a KKK hosted site with programing about so-called “heritage,” the Bible, and “family values.” The billboard features a photo of a young, white girl holding a puppy, and the bottom of the billboard reads, “Love Lives Here.” It should be noted that the same billboard is also up in Harrison, Arkansas.

The mayor has spoken out against the billboard as have many leaders in the community. No one wants this kind of attention, and perhaps it seems best to ignore the situation and write it off as the rantings of a small subgroup of hateful people. But I think there’s another option. Rather than ignore the billboard—and/or leave the discussions of the billboard up to national newscasts and publications who either by default or intent seek to depict Arkansas is overly-simplistic ways—we can tackle the issue head on. Such a billboard offers the white community in particular an opportunity for real dialog about that which we try so hard to ignore: Discussions of race.

There’s good reason we’re hesitant. We live in a society whose whole history was founded upon the idea that white people have rights that are not afforded to others. We may want to disagree with this and point to the principles of democracy. But history proves otherwise. Our country created the constitution at that same time we were referring to black people as 3/5 a person. There are people still living today who remember school desegregation and the terror of the KKK. But let’s go back even further. There were people living on the very places where we build our homes long before Europeans arrived and decided it was theirs for the taking. As a nation we like to pretend our problems with race and class are so far past us that they can’t possibly affect us now. What a convenient thought, right?

I believe that if we really get in touch with our heart and our gut—if we move past our fears and desire to suppress anything that makes us uncomfortable— I doubt any of us really believe that, as a culture or a society, we’ve fully moved on from the past. Rather, we aim for what is often term “color blindness” or shroud things in silence, refusing to admit to ourselves and our community that much of our state is still segregated. Of course, this isn’t true for every community or every family. There are always exceptions, and many of them hard fought. But a tour around most of the Arkansas neighborhoods makes such division impossible to refute.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But I’m not talking about taking up a so-called color-blind stance that flattens difference and tells lies about American History, suggesting that everything is okay now and we should all just forget the past. All these years of trying to ignore divisions or burying history haven’t worked. So what if we tired another approach? What if we began this way: Yes, race is a social construct. Yes, we’re all human and loved by God. But society itself has a long history of treating people differently based on race (and economic class, but that’s a topic for another discussion in another column). No matter how much we’d like to ignore it, race plays a huge role in how lives are lived in this country. This won’t go away by trying to pretend otherwise.

So let’s go back to this billboard. Is it racist to love your people? Of course not. But it’s most certainly racist to align yourself with the KKK—an organization who has murdered in the name of racial purity and preys upon the insecurities of struggling white people who mistaking come to believe that struggles for equality somehow push white people into fewer opportunities and/or steal from their resources. But let’s go even deeper. Who are our people? What does the phrase “your people” mean, exactly?

There are increasingly few people who strive to be openly separatist these days. Likewise, people love to talk about the genius of Martin Luther King, a man killed for his radical stance on bringing people together. He’s an easily quotable historical figure, but he was much more unsettling than many of us would care to acknowledge. For example, he talked about a “beloved community.” But this wasn’t a place of feel-good harmony where no one ever rocks the boat. He was not referring to a community built around silence or unwillingness to talk about how the concept of race plays itself out in this country. Rather he was talking about a community willing to expose history and build new futures for our children. This is not work for the faint of heart.

Could we work toward a community where “our people,” encompassed everyone who lived within the community, regardless of the difference we may hold? I’m an idealist. So of course I think it’s possible, or at the very least something to work toward. But I don’t think we get there by flattening or ignoring difference. So this is all to say, perhaps the best response to such a billboard is to create community spaces where we bravely dig into our histories with the goal of building new futures that recognize all stories and experiences. There are millions of ways to do this, and none of them begin in silence.

What do you think are some ways we can see this billboard as an opportunity to counteract the message of the KKK and build up and support a strong community where we are all one another’s people? I know this community is full of brave people who believe another way is possible. I’d love to hear your ideas and learn about the actions you’re taking. Thanks so much for reading.

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier newspaper serving Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.