The daily newspaper in Harrison, Arkansas—a town you may know, if at all, as a Ku Klux Klan refuge—reported Thursday that someone claiming affiliation with the hacker group Anonymous made a couple of calls to the local police station this week. In the calls, placed from numbers in two Boston suburbs, an automated voice warned that if the city didn't properly address its racism problem within the next week, there would be consequences. A reporter reached actual people at those numbers and was told that for being "the most racist fucking community in the country," the group was prepared to launch a cyberattack against residents and the city, gathering their credit card numbers and other sensitive data.
Setting aside the obvious question of whether such a thing is likely to happen, it is worth asking how a mostly unremarkable burg of about 13,000 people set in the Ozark hills of northwest Arkansas would gain a reputation worthy of the very threat. Lately, it has arisen from a couple of billboards. I espied the first while driving through Harrison last summer: an eyesore in shades of piss and earwax bearing the slogan "Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White," a shopworn mantra among white racist groups. Asked for his reaction to seeing the billboard, one Harrison native told me, "Mental facepalm."
That billboard came down. Now, there's one even more oblique reads, "It's NOT Racist to (heart) Your People," with a web address, whiteprideradio.com, for "KKK Radio." That site looks like something you would have built for a Web Design 101 class circa 1998. It contains, variously, such programming blocs as "Old Time Radio" and "Praise Music for All Ages." The thing does not exactly convey an impression of political or cultural relevance.
The site is run by a retrograde hate-monger named Thomas Robb, the national director of a group called the Knights of the KKK (David Duke's lasting gift to the world) and who lives a few miles outside of town, in an unincorporated nowhere called Zinc. But Robb maintains a post office box in Harrison, vexing everyone in Harrison who would prefer not to be labeled "the most racist fucking community in the country." Undoubtedly there are some racist people in Harrison, and from what I can gather anecdotally, at a higher ratio than most places. But most of what appears to qualify Harrison as an international symbol of racist isn't violence or epithets or threats. It's that a backwards old man who lives in the woods picks up his mail there.
"There's been a real false sense in medialand that the Klan is somehow resurgent," Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center said. "Various Klan factions got press in the spring. Harrison is just the latest. Harrison's an interesting story, but not because the Klan is so big and powerful. [Harrison has] had this bad reputation. For real, they really have been trying to make it a better place."
Over the past dozen years, people in Harrison have convened a task force on race relations to try and combat the town's reputation as a racist cesspool. There were two race riots in the early 20th century that saw white residents basically chase every black resident out of town, and Harrison, like thousands of other towns across America, was a "sundown town," a designation given to towns that overtly warned black people to leave town by nightfall. The group now starts dialogues on race relations and holds events that make people of color feel welcome on visits.
The task force's attempt to change perceptions has been mixed. In the past year CNN, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and NPR have all reported on the racist billboards. "The European press cannot get enough of it," Potok said. "Guns and Klan—stupid Americans, right?"
The Facebook page of the task force seems to acknowledge the challenge. "Al Jazeera America did a story on Harrison," a post from December reads. "We did our best to steer the narrative towards the reality that Harrison is in fact a warm and welcoming community to all." Alas, the first two words of the final story were "Thomas Robb." One famous white supremacist who welcomes reporters to his home can, over the years, develop a reputation that overwhelms everyone in a small town who pushes back.
"It's a very nebulous thing to try to grab ahold of," Rob McCorkindale, a founding member of the Harrison Community Task Force on Race Relations, said. "And there's resistance. A substantial portion of our population denies Harrison has this negative image. In the realm of politics, if you have faith, then you disregard facts."
The work of actually purging a town of racism is slow going. Part of the difficulty is that it's self-reinforcing: It seems like an inviting place for white supremacists, and thus presumably a place that would require extra courage for a person of color to move to. McCorkindale said that by now, many people in Harrison simply don't have any experience meeting people of other races.
Some months back, McCorkindale picked up a copy of Daisy Bates' memoir The Long Shadow of Little Rock among the used books at a library sale. In it, the Little Rock civil rights activist who helped the Little Rock Nine, the young students who integrated Central High in 1957, wrote of posting armed guards outside her home during that episode. "People don't realize the absolute terror she lived in," McCorkindale said. "All she was doing was being the shepherd for the Little Rock Nine. The hatred and the animosity was so pervasive then, there were gunshots into the house."
Harrison by contrast is yoked to a decrepit strain of racial ignorance, more wilted and sad than gunfire-and-brimstone. One recent dispatch by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report found a black part-time resident of Harrison whose only overt experience with racism came when a 5-year-old child noticed her at Walmart, pointed, and said, "Darkie." If the slur weren't so ugly, it would be comedic for its ridiculous vintage.
Anonymous (or whoever) is threatening townsfolk with indiscriminate harm over two billboards and a single Klansman who doesn't even live there. That's not the right way to end racism. Light, not heat, will make such pitiable crudeness fade.
This article has been updated.