This month, 14 African Americans will be celebrated for their roles as trailblazers of civil and equal rights.
Photograph by Ashlee Nobel
The late African American newspaper publisher and native Arkansan Daisy Bates, whose home served as headquarters for civil rights activists during the 1957 Little Rock Central High School integration crisis, famously noted, “No man or woman who tries to pursue an ideal in his or her own way is without enemies.”
The PBS-dubbed “First Lady of Little Rock” knew firsthand of which she spoke. Bates facilitated the Central High enrollment of the Little Rock Nine, the now-famous African American students who bravely enforced their constitutional right to equal education and integrated the previously all-white school despite both hostile mobs and an antagonistic state government intent on blocking their admittance.
It’s 14 such freedom fighters whom the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s (UALR) Institute on Race and Ethnicity will both honor and celebrate during its 2015 Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail Commemoration ceremony. The event will be held at 3 p.m., Nov. 12 at the corner of Scott and East Markham streets in downtown Little Rock. The ceremony is free and open to the public.
The honorees were selected for advancing equality through their work in “Politics and the Law,” this year’s Heritage Trail theme, chosen to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Arkansas has a collectively strong and rich history of civil rights activism. However, much of the focus on the civil rights movement here has been centered around the [Central High] school crisis,” said Dr. John A. Kirk, George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and the new director of the Institute. “While the school crisis was a tremendous turning point, there’s a much longer and broader history of activism in Arkansas that has been largely overlooked.”
It’s this virtually forgotten history, and both the better- and lesser-known actors intimately involved in shaping it, upon which Kirk, a native Brit, has dedicated his decades-long historical research to unearthing and recording.
UALR Chancellor Joel E. Anderson and his Chancellor’s Committee on Race and Ethnicity spurred the creation of the Institute in 2011, the goal of which is to “end racial and ethnic injustice” in Arkansas. The idea for the Heritage Trail, also established that year, was driven by Kirk’s research in Arkansas civil rights history and the work of Angela Parker, assistant director of the UALR Office of Communications.
Heritage Trail honorees’ names are engraved on 12-inch, circular bronze markers embedded in the downtown Little Rock sidewalks on Markham Street and Pres. Clinton Avenue. The trail begins at the Statehouse Convention Center and heads east toward the Clinton Presidential Center, said Tamisha Cheatham, project coordinator for the Institute.
The markers are a testament to the long-due recognition of activists who often risked their lives and personal freedoms to move the state toward greater equality. They also serve as permanent, visual reminders of the past and present struggle for civil rights in Arkansas, Kirk explained.
Past years have seen the likes of Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders, the 16th Surgeon General of the United States, recognized, in 2014; William Starr Mitchell, a white attorney who was active in the desegregation of Central High and downtown Little Rock businesses, in 2013; Little Rock attorney Christopher Mercer Jr., who, in 1949, was successful in his application to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville School of Law, becoming one of the “Six Pioneers” to integrate the school and who was also a close adviser to Bates and the Little Rock Nine, in 2012; and the late Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox, a minister from North Carolina who was one of the 13 original Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Riders, a group of 463 nonviolent activists who put themselves in peril to implement full desegregation of bus terminals, in 2011.
To read more about each year’s honorees and themes, log on to arkansascivilrightsheritage.org.