To say that Dr. George Keck was “surprised” when his Racial and Cultural Diversity Committee called for a vote that was not on the city board’s agenda— a resolution recommending the renaming of Pine Street to Martin Luther King Drive— would be an understatement.
Asked for his reaction, he simply said, “Shocked. Not surprised but shocked.”
Why? “Because it passed,” he replied, “the resolution would not have included a very clear and very strong justification from the committee for taking such action. So I think the subcommittee acted prematurely and has a lot of work to do to come up with something that will justify the name change. The city board will not meet again until August.”
With only six of the committee’s 11 members present, those voting in favor of the resolution were Dr. Keck, Leon Harris, Kenneth Harris and Herman Thomas. Taylor Chaney and Cathy Brownlee abstained from the vote. Asked later why he voted for the measure, Keck said that emotions were getting higher and his vote would not have made any difference anyway.
Brownlee, who later resigned, said the issue was “sensitive” and expressed concerns about what would happen next. “I think my concern is that it’s going to create this upheaval again, that we’re going to have a separation in our community again.”
Kenneth Harris said he supported the recommendation before voting but agreed with Dr. Keck that the resolution should have included justification for taking such action. A subcommittee was established to draft a resolution.
Echoing Brownlee’s concern, Keck said he thinks that the RCDC committee is not ready to make an appeal to the city board to change the name of Pine Street. I think it’s too early. I think it’s only going to lead to the same kind of controversy that we had several years ago.”
At the same time, Keck said, “ I think that eventually the city will probably rename Pine Street. I don’t know that for sure and it may not be in our lifetime. But there were not enough RCDC members present to make that decision because they were not representative of the other voices of the committee. And there should have been far more discussion on the part of the committee about this issue before it was recommended to the city board. That’s why I think the vote was premature.”
In response to Leon Harris saying that the primary reason the Racial and Cultural Diversity Committee was established “was because of the controversy surrounding the renaming of Pine Street,” Keck disagreed.
“On the contrary,” he said, “the charge to the committee from the city board was worded as follows: ‘The Arkadelphia Racial and Cultural Diversity Committee has the mission of promoting equal opportunity and the full exercise of civil rights for all citizens of the city. It is committed to dismantling racism and reducing prejudice within the city through modeling, education and policy development.’”
Because the board’s charge obviously goes far beyond the renaming of Pine Street, Keck said that before going any further, “the committee has some very important work to do. The renaming of Pine Street is an important issue but a very small part of the cultural diversity of this community. There are also a lot of issues that would benefit everybody in the community rather than limiting our attention to the renaming of Pine Street. But It seems that the RCDC is more interested in renaming Pine Street than it is on considering what is best for Arkadelphia.”
Prior to the discussion last week, City Manager Jimmy Bolt shared excerpts from comments made by people who attended a forum in 2010 regarding the Pine Street issue. Some of those comments suggested alternative approaches, such as renaming the Arkadelphia Recreation Center and Aquatic Park in his honor. Another concept that has gained widespread support is creating a Martin Luther King Memorial Park. “This would be a more healing tribute to Dr. King from the city,” Keck said, “especially for the young people. Today their understanding of Dr King is historical, something that they have read about.
“But since they did not live through that era, they understand his legacy mainly through the experiences of their parents and grandparents,” Keck said. “This is a very important aspect of it, but their parents and grandparents are not always going to be here. So having an MLK memorial park that is educational, optimistic and uplifting would be much more valuable to the entire community than renaming a street.”
City Manager Jimmy Bolt was exactly right two years ago when the city was first considering the establishment of a racial and cultural diversity committee and its role in restoring a spirit of good will and trust in the community.
“True reconciliation will not become a reality by merely shaking hands and saying that ‘all is well,’” Bolt said, “because obviously it is not. What will be required is for local [committee members] to explore the roots of the problems and then propose ways to get the community back on track.”