The interim director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock has told the Arkansas Blog that she was been asked to pull t-shirts bearing the slogan “Black Lives Matter” from the museum’s gift shop by Department of Arkansas Heritage deputy director Rebecca Burkes. The shirts have since been removed from sale.
Quantia Fletcher, who took over as interim director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, said that the shirts had been for sale in the museum gift shop since around Christmas, but were pulled off the shelves after a conversation with Burkes. Fletcher said that, being a state agency, the museum must represent all Arkansans.
“We understand that everybody doesn’t necessarily agree with the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. “So even getting the shirts and getting the Black Lives Matter items, we have to think about whether or not it would be an item that was something that may cause people to feel a particular way – whether or not we were being culturally sensitive, and to make sure we’re having items in our store that kind of fit with the mission of the museum, which is to collect and preserve and educate about Arkansas African-American history.”
Fletcher said that she was unaware of any complaints from visitors about the shirts, and said that she personally does not find the “Black Lives Matter” slogan or campaign offensive. She said that conversations about the appropriateness of the shirts are ongoing, and they may return to the gift shop at a later date.
As we reported back in September 2015, Burkes is a lawyer, former assistant professor and the wife of Arkansas Development and Finance Authority director Aaron Burkes. DAH director Stacy Hurst hired Burkes that month after firing two deputy directors, Kathy Hole and Marynell Branch
and DAH spokesperson Melissa Whitfield.
Correction: Whitfield was not fired, and is still the DAH spokesperson.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, speaking as a pastor and community leader, told Arkansas Blog that he was disappointed in the decision to pull the shirts from the shelves, adding that he was “quite honestly amazed that the people at the Department of Arkansas Heritage don’t understand the First Amendment better than they do.” Griffen went on to say there is nothing that warrants censorship of items bearing the Black Lives Matter slogan, and the fact that some people might disagree with it doesn’t make it worthy of being banned from a state-owned gift shop.
“I think it is appropriate for a museum that explores the African-American experience in Arkansas to have T-shirts saying Black Lives Matter,” he said. “It’s part of the cultural reality in which we live. The fact that people don’t like it doesn’t make it offensive. It just means it’s political speech. Black lives matter is political speech, and political speech is protected by the First Amendment.”
After being reached by a reporter about the shirts being pulled, Griffen took to his Facebook page to encourage people to call the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the Governor’s office about the controversy. He said he’d spoken to Burkes about the decision to take the shirts off the shelves.
“Arkansas is the state of the Elaine Race Massacre, the Little Rock Central High Crisis, and countless other vicious and outrageous conduct against black people,” Griffen wrote there. “Black Lives Matter! State officials need to know we understand this truth, will insist on it being respected, and will challenge this state employee and her department to respect it.”
As of this writing, Arkansas Times’ phone calls to Burkes have not been returned.