Local & Regional News
5:03 pm
Mon May 12, 2014

Tale Of Two Billboards: An Ozark Town's Struggle To Unseat Hate

Originally published on Mon May 12, 2014 6:58 pm

Second in a two-part report.

The Ozark region, covering most of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, has long been a haven for white supremacists. The area is home to the neo-Nazi accused of killing three people at Jewish centers near Kansas City, Kan., in April.

The region continues to grapple with a culture that has historically turned a blind eye to bigotry. That fight is particularly concentrated in Harrison, Ark.

Most residents seem to love their quiet little town. Terry Stambaugh, who retired here after a career with FedEx, says it's one of the most welcoming and loving and places he's ever seen.

"But what the rest of the world sees of Harrison, Ark., isn't what I found," he says. Instead, "it's the portrayal of a hotbed of hate."

Riots and murder drove more than 100 black residents from Harrison in the early 1900s, and it became a notorious "sundown town," a perilous place for African-Americans after dark.

Harrison's mayor, Jeff Crockett, is trying hard to lay the town's reputation to rest. Last month, near city hall, the town "buried racism and hatred," he says. And it did it in style — with a funeral march, a handmade casket and civil rights speeches.

The ceremony, attended by regional civil rights leaders and local residents, was part of a sustained effort here to press an uncomfortable conversation about race.

Addressing Bigotry That 'Didn't Go Away'

That effort runs against the grain of some citizens, who Crockett says repeat the same objection year after year: "If you just leave it alone, it'd go away."

"Well, they left it alone for so long, and it didn't go away," Crockett says.

That's partly because of some of very outspoken people based in Harrison, like Mike Hallimore, director of Kingdom Identity Ministries. The group, Hallimore says, believes "in the government of God on Earth — theocracy according to God's laws."

Those laws, he says, call for execution in cases of blasphemy, abortion or homosexuality. He preaches that Jews are descended from Satan and that only absolutely pure-blooded Caucasians enjoy what most would call a soul.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says tens of thousands follow Hallimore's ministry online. Like most prominent white supremacists in the Ozarks, Hallimore is a transplant. He moved here from California.

"I like rural living for one thing," he says. "But of course I like that it's predominantly white."

Hallimore is not the only one.

At the library in Harrison, lots of people seem to know Thom Robb, a pleasant-looking, middle-aged fellow who runs the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I have identified myself as a Gandhi of the White Nationalist Movement," he says. Robb says he doesn't hate black people. He just loves white people so much, he says, that he doesn't abide so-called race mixing.

Robb says he likes the name recognition the KKK label offers. He sells Klan shirts, hats and jewelry on his website. The three letters generate Web traffic for Robb, but headaches for the town.

"Harrison isn't the only nice, white community in the country. There are many," he says. "Harrison gets the attention because I happen to live here."

In reality, while his KKK post office box is in Harrison, Robb, like Hallimore, actually lives in a neighboring community. He moved in from Arizona decades ago, for some of the same reasons Hallimore chose the area. But now, Robb says that Crockett and his supporters are trying to mess it up.

"They are promoting white genocide," he says. "They want to take a nice city, with no problems, and do something — change it!"

Dueling Billboards

Carolyn Cline is one of the founders of Harrison's Community Task Force on Race Relations. The group formed a decade ago precisely to change not just the image but also the nature, of Harrison — methodically and respectfully. "Because you can never change either a perception, or an individual's worldview, by going to them and explaining to them [that] they're wrong," Cline says.

The president of the Chamber of Commerce, Patty Methvin, is another charter member of the task force.

"For economic development, it's huge," she says of the effort. "In order to promote Harrison for companies to come in, we want to be able to recruit the brightest and the best, no matter who they are."

By some measures, it's working. Alice Sanders, an African-American who moved here from Washington state, joined the task force and has made a point of speaking with lots of people.

"I have not had any problem with seeing any signs of racism," she says. "Of course, I haven't looked that hard for it."

If she did, she'd see it. There is, literally, a sign of racism — a big, yellow one, right on the main highway. It says, "Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White."

"I really find it offensive," says Stambaugh, a member of the race relations task force.

The group considered putting up its own sign, reading, "You Can't Fix Stupid," but decided on something more positive.

"We have a couple of billboards around town that simply say, 'Love your neighbor,' " Stambaugh says.

The fight over racism in Harrison is certainly more visible than it is in most places, but human rights advocate Leonard Zeskind, who researches hate groups, says it's hardly unique.

"The United States of America is brimming with racial conflict," he says. "There are plenty of all-white neighborhoods in the suburbs of Northern cities."

Racial conflict is one thing. But most of those cities don't have the intense concentration of hate groups, operating out of Ozark towns like Harrison.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. The Ozarks cover most of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. It's a region that has long been a haven for white supremacists. The area's been in the news lately because it's home to the neo-Nazi accused of killing three people at Jewish centers near Kansas City last month. The region continues to grapple with its racist past and a culture that has historically turned a blind eye to bigotry. That fight is concentrated in particular in Harrison, Arkansas. For the second in our series on the shifting nature of race relations in the Ozarks, Frank Morris of member station KCUR visited Harrison.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Most people here in Harrison seem like it. Terry Stambaugh, who retired here after a career with FedEx, says it's one of the most welcoming and loving places he's ever seen.

TERRY STAMBAUGH: But what rest of the world sees of Harrison, Arkansas isn't what I found. It's the portrayal of a hotbed of hate.

MORRIS: In the early 1900s, riots and murder drove more than 100 black residents from Harrison, and it became a notorious sundown town, a perilous place for African-Americans after dark. The mayor here, Jeff Crockett, is trying hard to lay Harrison's reputation to rest.

JEFF CROCKETT: We're right here at the corner at city hall, right on the corner of Central and Spring Street, walking out to where we buried racism and hatred.

MORRIS: They buried it in style - just last month - with a funeral march, hand-made casket and civil rights speeches. All part of a sustained effort here to press an uncomfortable conversation about race that goes against grain for some, who Mayor Crockett says repeat the same objection year after year.

CROCKETT: You know, if you just leave it alone, it'll just go away. Well, they left it alone for so long, and it didn't go away.

MORRIS: Partly because of some very outspoken people based in Harrison.

MIKE HALLIMORE: My name is Mike Hallimore, I'm the director of Kingdom Identity Ministries. We believe in the government of God on Earth, theocracy according to God's laws.

MORRIS: Hallimore says those laws call for execution in cases of blasphemy, abortion or homosexuality. He preaches that Jews are decedents of Satan and that only absolutely pure-blooded Caucasians enjoy what most would call a soul. The Southern Poverty Law Center says tens of thousands follow Hallimore's ministry on line. Like most prominent white supremacists in the Ozarks, he's a transplant - moved here from California.

HALLIMORE: Well, I like rural living for one thing, but of course I like that it's predominantly white.

MORRIS: He's not the only one.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello, Mr. Robb. How are you today?

THOM ROBB: Good.

MORRIS: At the library in Harrison, lots of people seem to know Thom Robb, a pleasant-looking middle-aged fellow who runs the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

ROBB: I have identified myself as the Gandhi of the White Nationalist Movement.

MORRIS: You see, Robb says he doesn't hate black people. He just loves white people so much that he doesn't abide so-called race mixing. KKK is public domain, anyone can use it. Rob likes the name recognition. He sells Klan t-shirts, hats and jewelry on his website. The three letters generate great web traffic for Robb, but big headaches in town.

ROBB: Harrison isn't the only nice white community in the country. There are many. Harrison gets the attention because I happen to live here.

MORRIS: Well, his KKK post office box is in Harrison, but Robb, like Hallimore, actually lives outside of town. He moved from Arizona decades ago, for some of the same reasons Hallimore chose the area. But now, he says Mayor Crockett and his supporters are trying to mess it up.

ROBB: They are promoting white genocide. They want to take a nice city with no problems and do - change it.

MORRIS: Yes, apparently they do, though very methodically and respectfully.

CAROLYN CLINE: Because you can never change either a perception or an individual's world view by going and explaining to them they're wrong.

MORRIS: Carolyn Cline is one of the founders of Harrison's Community Taskforce on Race Relations, a group formed a decade ago. Chamber of Commerce president Patty Methvin is a charter member.

PATTY METHVIN: For economic development, it's huge. In order to promote Harrison for companies to come in, we want to be able to recruit the brightest and the best no matter who they are.

MORRIS: And slowly, it may be working. Alice Sanders, an African-American, moved here from Washington State, and joined the taskforce.

ALICE SANDERS: I have not had any problems with seeing any signs of racism. Of course, I haven't looked that hard for it.

MORRIS: If she did, she'd see it. There is a sign - literally a sign of racism - big yellow one, right on the main highway.

STAMBAUGH: I really find it offensive.

MORRIS: What's it say?

STAMBAUGH: It says "Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White."

MORRIS: Terry Stambaugh who's also on the race relations taskforce, says they talked about putting up their own sign reading: "You Can't Fix Stupid," but they settled on something a bit more positive.

STAMBAUGH: We have a couple of billboards around town that simply say "Love Your Neighbor."

MORRIS: The fight over racism in Harrison is certainly more visible than it is in most places, but human rights advocate Leonard Zeskind, who researches hate groups, says it's hardly unique.

LEONARD ZESKIND: The United States of America is brimming with racial conflict. There are plenty of all-white neighborhoods in the suburbs of northern cities.

MORRIS: Racial conflict is one thing, but most of those towns don't have is the intense concentration of hate groups operating out of Ozark towns like Harrison, Arkansas. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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