“Take Care of Your Own Towns”: Arkansas’ History and Future

On January 6, an Arkansan man entered the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. There he took a seat, planted a boot on her desk, and allowed photographer Saul Loeb to immortalize him in a photo that would sweep the national news for days and weeks after the incident. Two days later, Richard Barnett of Gravette, a city in northwest Arkansas, walked into his local police department and admitted to the crime.


Following the incident, the city of Gravette’s Facebook page was flooded with a barrage of comments condemning the actions of Barnett. The self-proclaimed “Heart of Hometown America” suddenly found itself in the national limelight for perhaps the first time in its history, as people from around the country joined the page to see the city’s response to its newly infamous resident’s actions. Gravette citizens and other Arkansans soon joined the fray in defense of the small town. 


“What is wrong with people who are not from Gravette and know nothing about this town commenting as if they actually know the people?” Arkansan Ellie Hook said. “Keyboard warriors who have nothing better to do than clack on their keyboard! Get a life and take care of your own towns.”


Many outside the state viewed Arkansas less kindly, linking Barnett’s actions to a culture that fostered xenophobia, racism, and reactionary ideology. In a particularly scathing comment, Tennessee resident Tony Wichowski denounced Gravette as a “cradle of white supremacy.” 


Former Arkansan Peter Bradley received a barrage of angry replies telling him to “stop running his arrogant mouth” in response to a critical comment minutes after posting it.


“I’ve lived in that part of Arkansas, and, hate to say it, that guy is pretty typical of an Arkansas resident there,” Bradley said. “He’s more the rule than the exception.”


Citizens of Gravette and Arkansas were inclined to defend the town; after all, it was unfair to condemn an entire town due to the actions of one fringe individual, wasn’t it?


“The vast majority of the citizens who live in Gravette, Arkansas are salt-of-the-earth people who would help their neighbors at a moment’s notice,” Mayor Kurt Maddox said in a statement to the press.  


In the days following the incident, two images of the average resident of Gravette appeared on social media: the terroristic, far-right reactionary and the innocent, centrist-liberal bystander. Residents on Gravette’s many social media pages largely denied that there were any issues in their town, angered by the suggestion that they had created an environment in their city in which prejudice could grow.


“What actions are you taking to ensure that your city does not foster racism, white supremacy, [or] anti-semitism?” New Jersey resident Yarden Moskovitch Menashe asked under the transcript of the mayor’s press statement.


We have to have actions now? Because a guy from town broke the law in another state?” Gravette resident Johnnie Austin asked. “Is that in ‘da rulez?’”


Though more open-minded residents of Gravette may find confronting Barnett’s actions at the Capitol head-on painful, it is important that the environment that nurtured his reactionary ideology be examined for any true, meaningful change to happen. Benton County, where Gravette is located, was a notorious cluster of sundown towns from the late 1800s to the 1970s according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Sundown towns were towns known for their intense hostility toward nonwhite (especially Black) travellers, often posting signs warning Black people “Don’t let the sun go down on you here.” 


Many areas of the rural South are still choked by racism, xenophobia, and reactionary thought passed down through generations before and following the Civil War. People like Barnett are not created in a vacuum. They are molded and forged by their environments, absorbing the overt and covert ideologies that surround them during their childhood and adulthood. Turning a blind eye to the actions of “one bad apple” will not help Arkansas to flourish; instead, those who stand against progress and acceptance will spread their ideology to future generations, continuing the cycle of systemic and cultural discrimination in America. 


We cannot divorce the “good salt-of-the-earth Arkansans” from the ones who stormed the Capitol in order to avoid self-reflection and guilt. Facing our past, examining our existing biases, and reforming the culture of our state is critical if we want to heal and move forward as a state and as a nation. In a comment on the Gravette Facebook page that was simultaneously highly-liked and angrily criticized, Connecticut resident Deborah Savage asked the residents of Gravette to reflect on themselves and on their community.


“Ask yourself what there is in your town and state that breeds the level of anti-Semitism and racism, hatred and violence that this man encapsulates,” Savage said. “Figure out what you need to change in your education system, churches and laws to stop your children from being radicalized.”