SPURS PROTEST: A reading by the author of this book has some people in Jonesboro upset. That, in turn, has the local newspaper editor upset

Jonesboro rebelled at naming a street for civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and now the political extremists there are raising a ruckus because the library is having a reading of a novel for teens by the trans author Meredith Russo.

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Chris Wessel, the editor of the Jonesboro Sun, was inspired to write a column about the shameful events. It’s reprinted here with his permission. Wessel, by the way, is a self-described conservative Republlican. One of the small number that apparently still has a heart.

 

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One day hearts, minds will change

by Chris Wessel, editor of The Jonesboro Sun

October 17, 2019

There are some regretful — shameful — things happening in Jonesboro that are putting the city in a bad light from both a regional and national perspective.

First is the city’s inability to name a street for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., one of our nation’s most iconic leaders of the 20th century.

Second is the public outrage about a trans teen author who is scheduled to talk about her award-winning novel, “If I Was Your Girl,” on Oct. 22 at the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library.

Apparently some folks in Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas still think it’s the 1950s, spreading their unfounded fears and hatred toward those who are different and opposing social norms that were fought and won long ago.

Believe me, it doesn’t look good to outsiders, especially those who might be interested in starting a business or expanding an industry to Jonesboro.

There are haters here voicing their ugly beliefs in public as though they have broad support. Pockets, maybe. As a nation, not even close.

I understand there are strong feelings about both issues, but that boat has sailed — one long ago and one being fought in the courts as I write this. Those who hold onto the divisive notions that Martin Luther King Jr., a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was assassinated 70 miles from here, isn’t worthy of having a street named after him in Jonesboro, and that LGBTQ people aren’t equal in God’s eyes and don’t deserve discrimination protection, are simply wrongheaded.

History will be as unkind as it has been in the past.

It’s a sad state of affairs when a city council can’t muster the courage to name a street after Martin Luther King, a true American hero.

The entire committee process — called the Unity Coalition Advisory Committee — turned into a farce and a betrayal as two committee members aptly described it in reporting by Sun reporter Keith Inman.

Emma Agnew, president of the Craighead County NAACP, expressed her organization’s disappointment at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

“First, the Unity Coalition did not unify anything and it was a waste of time,” Agnew, who served on the committee, told council members. “We were diligently giving up time from our businesses and jobs only to have the public works committee not even vote on our proposed ordinance, but changed it.”

Sandra Combs, a college instructor who also served on the committee, was more blunt.
Combs said she initially supported the Johnson Avenue proposal, but agreed to help find an alternative because of the public reaction.

“There was so much hostility, so much hatred, so much bigotry,” Combs said. “So much name-calling, racism and threats of a recall election by an anonymous few that I succumbed to the pressure of going in another direction.”

Combs said she thought Commerce Drive was a good compromise.

“Then I read that the ordinance approved by the public works committee wasn’t what we voted on, and I felt lied to,” Combs said. “I felt hoodwinked. I felt swindled. I felt cheated. If felt disrespected. I felt played for a fool.”

That’s should be easy for anyone to understand.

I’ve lived in lots of places during my 37-year newspaper career, and every one of those towns has a street named for Martin Luther King. It’s sad that an honor so simple for a man so deserving hasn’t happened in Jonesboro. It’s 2019, not 1950. Jonesboro doesn’t want to be known as “that kind of town.”

As for the trans teen author speaking about her book at the library, some of the negative reaction is simply pitiful, ridiculing this young person and chastising library staff for having her come speak.

Her book won the annual Teen Book Award through the Arkansas State Library. Our library chooses the author who wins the annual award to come speak. Her novel has also won national awards.

David Eckert, the library’s director, said if a student wants to go to the event, they have to go to school and get a permission slip.

“They then get a copy of the book and the school busses the kids to the event,” Eckert told Sun reporter Adria Hyde. No one is forced to attend.

The first public complaints were launched Oct. 6 on a Facebook site called “Citizens Taxed Enough,” the tea party group that also opposed and help defeat the recent 1% sales tax referendum.

How ironic.

Because of the negative comments, Eckert said he requested that the Jonesboro Police Department assign an extra officer on duty to patrol at the library that day.

“There have been no threats,” he said. “We have had a mix of calls that people are not in favor of it. The kids are not being forced to attend.”

Last year, there were eight or nine schools that attended. At least three schools have said their students will not attend this year’s event because of “safety issues.”
That’s a sad state of affairs. I bet the detractors are proud.

Still, there is good news: The library’s board didn’t back down. The event will go on as planned. Regardless of your beliefs, it would be interesting to hear what she has to say.
One day hearts and minds will change.

Chris Wessel, editor of The Sun, can be reached at 935-5525, Ext. 250, or cwessel@jonesborosun.com.