Legislation Being Drafted to Promote Racial Healing in Arkansas

The bill would create a statewide commission and establish community remembrance projects in each county.

Elaine Massacre Defendants
The 12 Elaine Massacre defendants. Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System.

The weeklong celebration of the National Day of Racial Healing in Arkansas is over, but event organizers say there is still work to be done. Efforts are underway to pass legislation that would create an Arkansas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Commission. Organizers made the announcement during a virtual press conference Friday.

A similar bill was filed during the 2019 Legislative Session, but it did not make it out of the Senate’s education committee. Senator Joyce Elliott, a Democrat from Little Rock sponsored that bill and is working on the new legislation. Fellow Little Rock Democrat Representative Tippi McCullough has said she would like to be a co-sponsor of the bill when the time comes. 

Kwami Abdul-Bey, co-founder of the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement, said the new legislation differs from the previous bill in a few ways. First, it would create a community remembrance project in all 75 Arkansas counties. The projects would be overseen by the county judge’s office and they would address instances of historical racial injustice specific to their county. 

“And begin having countywide discussions where Black, white, rich, poor, young, old all come together at the same table and begin having discussions on the county level,” Abdul-Bey said.

The legislation will also contain a section dedicated to making the National Day of Racial Healing an official statewide observance. Abdul-Bey said Arkansas would be the first state to do so. Gov. Asa Hutchinson was one of about 85 elected officials and civic organizations who issued National Day of Racial Healing proclamations in Arkansas this year.

“This gives us the groundswell, the momentum to go to the legislature and say the people have spoken,” Abdul-Bey said. 

When the bill is filed, it will once again try to establish a statewide commission. 

“That organization will be historians, educators, elected officials and community members and descendants who will come together to form this commission and they will basically oversee what the 75 community remembrance projects on the county level are doing,” Abdul-Bey said.

While the remembrance projects will address different parts of Arkansas history specifically to their region, a piece of Phillips County history will be addressed directly in the new legislation, which calls for the exoneration of Elaine Massacre defendants.

Over a century ago, hundreds of African Americans in Elaine, Arkansas were murdered by white people in what the Encyclopedia of Arkansas refers to as “the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States.”

Lisa Hicks Gilbert, founder and advocate for the Descendants of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, said they are imploring Gov. Hutchinson and Arkansas lawmakers to take action.

“Arkansas acknowledging and facing the horror of the Elaine Massacre, the wrongful arrests and convictions of the Black sharecroppers, and the deafening silence in its aftermath is long overdue,” Hicks-Gilbert said. 

That acknowledgment can help move the state closer to true racial healing and hopefully to a hate crimes bill that is also long overdue, she said. Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes law, but Sen. Jim Hendren, a Republican from Gravette, and Rep. Fred Love, a Democrat from Mabelvale, have filed legislation that, if approved by the legislature, would change that. 

Ultimately, that’s what the effort is about — change. Despite the state’s history of racial injustices, Kwami Abdul-Bey said Arkansas can be an example for other states by passing racial healing legislation. 

“Arkansas can be number one for once and we want to be number one as a bastion of racial healing, racial equity and social justice in the United States,” he said. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.