Given at the Arkansas Black Mayors Association on March 22, 2019
I am thankful for the opportunity to speak for a few minutes with this august group of men and women who gather here from across the state of Arkansas. It warms my heart to see this group of Black leaders who have committed themselves to a term of public service as mayors. You are the executive leadership, the figure heads, and face of your cities.
Since the early part of twentieth century, Blacks have chosen to focus on political power as the primary means to bring about social and economic change. We stand on the shoulders of men such as Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy. We are encouraged by the strength of Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks. They sought to access the halls of political power through nonviolent direct action to secure the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These men and women flung open wide the doors of opportunity for all of us today. These are just a couple of reasons fifty-one cities are represented by Black males and females in Arkansas today in contrast to an Arkansas of that same 1960’s period which had no Black Mayors. There were glimmers of hope though in the midst of a difficult period leading up to the funeral of legalized segregation, Jim Crow, and Jane Crow.
Historian Carl Moneyhon, identifies significant economic foundation for Arkansas Blacks in the early twentieth century was tied to the land. Moneyhon, observes political representation by Blacks was “primarily agricultural…” because “a majority of black voters lived on the farm” (p.223). What we can also learn is that there was a growing middle class of Black Arkansans even in the midst of a segregated and overtly racist Arkansas. This growing middle class included clergy, educators, doctors, lawyers, and other jobs marked as professional (Moneyhon, 1985). So from Little Rock to Pine Bluff, from counties such as Chicot, Desha, and Phillips County, the middle class began to energize our Black population even under such dehumanizing racist environment.
What does this information mean for us today? How can we use political power as a means to open doors of greater social and economic power to bring vitality or sustain the communities you men and women represent?
I believe there is an abundance of great opportunity for our Arkansas cities and towns. If we look at our history and the ingenuity of Black Arkansans post-Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Era, there is no reason there can not be many Wiley Jones. “Wiley Jones had risen from slavery and the farm to become a wealthy man. By the end of the century, he owned the Wiley Jones Street Car line, town lots in Pine Bluff…Contemporaries estimated Jones’s wealth at $300,000.00 by 1890” (Moneyhon, 1985; p.225). As political leaders you have been given the authority to create opportunities of success for the citizens you represent. It is a heavy responsibility but with support it can be accomplished.
Our organization works with cities and towns to provide technical support to create nonprofits and develop leadership which can create opportunities of change for cities and towns such as yours. Since 2018 in partnership with the University of Central Arkansas we have established a community development nonprofit in the city of Mitchellville with Mayor Carl Griswold. This year we have started similar work in the city of Eudora with the leadership of their new Mayor Travis Collins to focus on educational support, housing, and workforce training. The common thread I have seen unite these different cities is a passionate commitment of transformation despite resource limitation. This is part of our history in Arkansas and yet history has shown Black Arkansans have the faith and leadership to take two fish and five loaves to be a blessing for many generations.
These future generations are why you are here today and when we continue to look forward harnessing the victories of the past, I believe the opportunities for each of your cities will be great. CoHO want to be a part of supporting the creation of those opportunities.
Thank you and God Bless.