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A weekend slate of events to celebrate and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Northwest Arkansas Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Council is celebrating the upcoming holiday with a number of events - including a new cultural festival held at Crystal Bridges on Friday night and a keynote speech from Author and Journalist Nikole Hannah Jones on Saturday. Ozarks at Large's Daniel Caruth spoke with the council's president Lindsey Leverett-Higgins about how people can get involved ahead of the holiday.

Daniel Caruth: I imagine people probably already know a lot about the council but if you could just give me a little bit of background on the council and sort of the work that you all do. 

Lindsey Leverett-Higgins: The Northwest Arkansas Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Council was established under the kind of impetus of the late Reverend J. Erin Hawkins. Pastor Hawkins’ vision was really to bring an organization to Northwest Arkansas that celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. King. He thought that this was something that they were doing in the Fort Smith area. That they had a big celebration honoring Dr. King's life and his legacy. And he thought how amazing it would be to bring something of that nature to the Northwest Arkansas area, and he did it. And so as a result of his work, the council was born. And so since then, the council really has been in instrumental organization in just ensuring that we continue to represent the life and legacy of Dr. King, that we continue to celebrate his dream and to continue to live out his legacy and continue to be torchbearers and do his work.

And so we have just made some tremendous strides over the years as an organization, renaming Sixth Street to MLK, and then bringing some phenomenal, nationally recognized speakers to Northwest Arkansas through our recommitment celebration. We have over the years been able to give out a significant number of scholarships to Northwest Arkansas high school seniors and college students. And this year we're proud to be able to give out $35,000 in scholarships this year, which is absolutely amazing. So we have done some tremendous work as an organization over the history and the tenure of the council.

DC: And now it’s in its 28th year, can you talk about how you've seen it grow and change over that time or what has happened in that almost three decades?

LLH: I moved here in 2004 and since I've been in Northwest Arkansas I have definitely seen the council grow and expand just in terms of giving in the amount of scholarships that the council has given out over the years. Even the level of service and the work that the council is doing in the local and greater community. And now most recently with the project that the council is undergoing the state of Black NWA, the census project, that's a that's a huge deal to be fortunate enough to be in a position to really do some factfinding and to gather some data on different areas that are reflective of really been able to tell the story black in northwest Arkansas from some different data points.

DC: Can you just talk about some of the celebrations that are coming up and the events happening over this weekend and on the 15th? 

LLH: Absolutely. So we kick off the weekend, weather permitting, on Friday with a very brand new event for us as a council and it's our Beloved Community Festival. We are excited to partner with Crystal Bridges to bring the Beloved Community Festival we're excited to have Walmart and Sam's on as our executive sponsors for this event. And this is really a festival that we are seeking to celebrate Dr. King's vision and his dream of this beloved community — a community where every race every culture and every class is a part of this community, this beloved community. And so we are just excited about having an opportunity to really celebrate our beloved community here in Northwest Arkansas, and to celebrate the cultures that are reflective of our community. We have some amazing cultural entertainment lined up for the evening on Friday. We have some amazing food that will represent a number of different cultures throughout the Northwest Arkansas area. And so we're really excited about being able to bring this event to the community. It is definitely a family friendly that parents can bring kids to and we're just looking forward to celebrating and celebrating Dr. King's beloved community in our beloved community here in Arkansas, and it is completely free. So thanks to our sponsors, Walmart and Sam's Club. We were able to produce this amazing event at no cost to the community.

DC: Can you talk a little bit of some of the traditions that are happening as well like the banquet, the vigil, the keynote speakers that you guys have coming up? What's in store on that front?

LLH: So instead of our traditional banquet, we are moving forward with our Recommitment Celebration. It will not be a sit-down dinner, but we have moved to a format like last year where we will have a fireside chat. This year we will do a community reception will feature community reception that will start on Saturday 3:30pm for any members of our community that wants to come out and celebrate with us. And then our actual recommitment celebration will take place at 5pm at the Fayetteville Public Library in the event center space. And our speaker for the fireside chat will be none other than the incomparable Nikole Hannah Jones, the author of the 1619 Project. So we are definitely excited to bring her to Northwest Arkansas.

DC: Incredible. And so how did you guys make that happen? That's a pretty big it's a pretty big get, I'm imagining.

LLH: Absolutely. So, we were fortunate last year to be able to bring Dr. Cornel West. And so our commitment to the Northwest Arkansas community was to continue to just raise the bar higher and higher and to continue to bring in speakers to the area that will really want to challenge us to think about how we further that dream and that vision that Dr. King had. That really challenged us to continue to be torchbearers to pick up the torch and continue to do his work. So we're committed to doing just that. And so we thought that Nikole Hannah Jones would be very timely for our organization and for our community.

DC: Talking about you know, timeliness. I know that Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Dr. King's legacy, this day in particular, it can feel very politicized and whitewashed sometimes, you know, what do you think people get wrong or maybe misunderstand about Dr. King's legacy and his work and what ways are you guys trying to address that with these events and speakers like Nikole Hannah Jones?

LLH: I'm glad you asked that question. So one of the things that I think that people get wrong about Dr. King’s work and his legacy is that Dr. King was very focused on equity and justice for all members of the community that were disenfranchised. And so as an organization, we have really made it our mission to focus on that concept of the beloved community. We launched The Beloved Community Podcast. And so we really want people to understand that it's really about continuing that work of equity of justice and equal rights for all people. That's what we're really focused on doing that work here in the Northwest Arkansas community.

DC:  So I was in AmericaCorps, I know another part of this day is that it's a day of service. And I know bolunteering is a big aspect of the holiday. So can you talk a little bit about some of maybe the service activities that you guys have planned, and why that element is so important?

LLH: The holiday is absolutely a day on and a day off. So a big part of what we do is we focus on a community service project. We are partnering on Saturday morning from 9am to noon, with Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity incorporated the Omicron Zeta Lambda chapter to collect school supplies and seasonal gear — so winter items, coats, jackets, scarves, hats, all of that fun stuff — at the John L. Colbert Middle School that we will distribute to the community. And then we will also make a donation to the John. L Middle School community closet. So when they have students that are in need of some of those items, they're able to secure those items from the community closet there is a middle school

DC: I was also wondering, what do you hope people take away from this day and from these events, people within the community who maybe haven't engaged with the council before or any of your work. What do you hope they might come and be a part of or what they'll take away from it?

LLH: I hope that if people have not engaged with the council before that they will definitely come out and join us. The work of Dr. King didn't end with the passing of Dr. King. And that as a community, we still have room to grow and that there's still work to be done, but it can't be done by just our organization alone. It’s going to take capacity building and coalition building, working in conjunction with other like-minded organizations and with other like-minded individuals in the community. And so I hope that they take away that we're continuing to do Dr. King's work, we have picked up the torch and we will continue to run with it and we just hope that they will join us in the work that still needs to be done in our community.

DC: And as far as is what needs to be done here in Northwest Arkansas. What do you see as the biggest issues that need to be addressed and that you guys are playing a part in helping to address those?

LLH: I think through the census project that we're undergoing, the state of Black NWA, a big focus on work that still needs to be done in our local community is really looking at how we have access and equity for individuals in our community as it relates to healthcare and housing, and as it relates to culture that are mindful of the inequities that exist, and understanding how we can be a partner at this table to help dismantle or break down some of the inequities that exist in some of those areas.

DC: And do you know when that that census project might be done, or will you guys have a timeline for that?

LLH: We will continue to collect data throughout 2024, the census project is available online at our website So we're looking at wrapping our second phase in 2024. We're looking to have a preliminary report out of some initial findings this year. We will continue to collect data throughout the 2024 calendar year.

DC: Is there anything else you want to add, say, or think people should know?

LLH: The Monday events will all be moved to virtual. On Monday we will do a Dreamkeepers Breakfast, that has been moved to virtual. The Freedom March will also be every now and the Noon Day Vigil that's offered by the University of Arkansas that we participate in will also be virtual.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>
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