On Jan. 15, six Lincoln High School alumni spoke of their experiences integrating from the all-black school to Northside High School during a panel discussion at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.
The panelists - Sherry Tolliver, Rev. Jerry Jennings, David Geren, Dr. Rhonda Gray, Benny Shepherd Jr., and Jim Rowland – spoke to a capacity crowd in the Reynolds Room of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center at UAFS. The event was part of a community breakfast celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The LHS alumni spoke of the discrimination they faced integrating into Northside High School, what it took them to forgive the mistreatment they experienced, and their hopes for Dr. King’s dream being achieved in Arkansas and the United States.
But despite the challenges, Fort Smith didn’t face the racial strife that other cities such as Little Rock faced during school integrations, according to Rep. George McGill who served as moderator of the panel.
“We didn’t have that here in Fort Smith, Arkansas. We don’t have monuments to racial strife. And something had to happen to make sure that didn’t happen,” McGill said. “I want you to get a good look at the folks on this panel. These are the men and women that played a major role in Fort Smith … that created an environment where every man had a right to be free.”
Dr. Paul B. Beran, UAFS chancellor, gave welcoming remarks to the event, where he urged those in attendance to “exercise what the MLK celebration is about every single day.”
“Every single day, we need to commit ourselves to smartness and not stupidity, to insight and not ignorance, to education and not eradication, to tolerance and not contentiousness. Every single day, we need to celebrate our diversity, whatever it is, and then nurture our sameness as human beings,” Beran said. “Balancing diversity and sameness is not counterintuitive. Our diversity is like a spoke on the wheel, and our sameness is like the hub … so let’s celebrate the human wheel that allows our differences and our sameness. Let’s keep Dr. King’s message of education, equality and opportunity in full view this next year.”
Dr. Leroy Cox, associate dean in the College of Applied Science and Technology at UAFS, served as the master of ceremonies of the event, and Jennings gave the invocation. Dr. Williams Yamkam, assistant professor of political science and coordinator of the event, introduced the panelists and spoke to the importance of the event. The St. James Missionary Baptist Church also performed.
Following the panel discussion, attendees participated in a symbolic march across campus, where the event concluded.