Impassioned leaders from across the River Valley joined together Monday, Jan. 18, to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith’s annual panel discussion, which was moved to a virtual format this year due to COVID-19.
Speaking on the topic of “Human Rights in a Time of Crisis,” panelists actively working in all facets of civil rights reflected on Dr. King’s quote, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at the time of challenge and controversy.”
Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker; Jay Richardson, state representative for District 78; Rita Howard Watkins, Sebastian County public defender; The Rev. Sonna B. Key, a founding member of Police and Community Engagement (PACE); and Mayra Esquivel, an activist with Arkansas Immigration Defense, comprised the panel that spoke to more than 150 guests via Zoom and many more who watched through live streams on social media. Paul Davis, the senior pastor for St. James Missionary Baptist Church, moderated the discussion.
Dr. Williams Yamkam, associate professor of political science, chair of the university’s Democracy Project, and coordinator of the event, welcomed the crowd and encouraged all to use the many difficulties of 2020 as a chance to reflect on how we fight for justice in times of crisis.
Dr. Terisa Riley, UAFS chancellor, welcomed guests, both joyful that the celebration could continue and mourning the fellowship held on campus in past years. “We’ve learned so much this past year,” she said somberly, “but we have much more to learn.” Riley expressed her thankfulness to welcome such outstanding advocates for racial and civic justice to this forum and for their continued efforts to make the region a more diverse and welcoming community for all.
Davis led panelists through a powerful discussion of the things that inspire them, motivate them, and spark their passion for this difficult work.
“I live at the intersection of faith and action,” said Key, “and a large part of that is asking tough questions. We have to ask tough questions in the community. We have to examine our spaces – are there people of color there, are there women there, are there LGBTQI people there – and then we have to raise up leaders to ask those same tough questions in the public square.”
“The intersection is where change happens,” added Davis.
“One of my favorite quotes is ‘If they don’t have you a seat at the table, bring your own folding chair,” said Watkins when discussing her experience as the sole Black defense attorney in Sebastian County courts and the painful experience of walking into court and being the only person of color, sometimes even representing individuals with blatantly racist tattoos and attitudes. “I defend every client I have to the best of my ability, even when I know they hate me for the color of my skin,” she said with a deep sigh. “I am carrying a chair everywhere I go, and I am going to make sure when you see me you know what I’m about. I am about justice. I’m about fairness. I’m about making sure everyone feels comfortable where we are. I struggle with it myself, I do, but I am glad that I have the passion that I do for equality.”
Esquivel echoed the challenges of being seen by skin color first, citing her upbringing as an immigrant and serving as a beacon of light for her family. “You’re the first to go to school, you’re the interpreter, you go out and you get sort of thrown to the wolves to figure it out.” As the English speaker for her family, she described through tears how as a little girl she witnessed rude and judgmental professionals who looked down on her family solely for their status as immigrants. “I knew at that moment that I had found my passion, and I carry that with me when I meet clients. … You have to be humble, so I'm grateful for those struggles. I'm grateful for my life, and when I meet with somebody or when someone reaches out, I can show that compassion and understanding – its key for what I do.”
“In my walk as a white person, it’s taken me 47 years to get to a point that I truly see and understand that I've never had to walk into the room and feel uncomfortable just because of the color of my skin; I've never had to worry about not getting an opportunity because of the color of my skin, and that has come about by making sure that I am not just around people who think and look like me,” said Chief Baker before explaining the ways he leads the Fort Smith Police Department through compassion, growth and continual learning. “We don’t all have the same experience, and I’m committed to constantly growing. Growth doesn’t come from a place of comfort. So I have learned to embrace discomfort because I know God's got something in store, and I know something better is going to come from it.”
Rep. Richardson echoed leaning on faith in discomfort. “You keep fighting,” he said. “My family keeps me in the fight, the people that I see on a daily basis, my friends who poured into my life, teachers who poured into my life and pastors that poured into to my life – Miss [Charolette]Tidwell, George McGill, these individuals are the reason that I continue to fight.” Richardson expressed an earnest concern about heading to the capitol this week but added that his commitment to the state and to District 78 meant he would continue to fight for justice no matter what. “We all want the same thing: We want what's best for people. If we can lay our heads down and know that we did the best for the people we represent and the best for the people we love, it all comes out.”
The panelists encouraged the crowd to think critically about Dr. King’s words, to get involved in a way that meets each person’s own passions, to fight through the difficult times, and make space to create a better world.
The panel marks the 10th year UAFS has hosted a morning discussion event to honor and celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy.