The Rhythm of Poetic Justice

The silence kept pace with the long, southern highways unspooling beneath the car’s tires.

From Montgomery, Alabama, to Memphis, Tennessee, Kwami and Clarice Abdul-Bey drove without speaking, reflecting on what they had just seen and heard while visiting one of the cradles of civil rights.

Among Montgomery’s historical sites, Kwami and Clarice had visited the recently opened Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which addresses the history of slavery and racism in America, including segregation and lynchings.

Outside the car, spring had overtaken the fields and Delta flatlands rolling past the windows. Inside, the couple, both of them Arkansas natives, were overcome by the emotions they quietly shared — an awed sense of history, the collective pain of thousands and the eternal hunger for justice.

As Memphis rolled into view, Clarice turned to her husband and broke the silence.

“You know we have to do something,” she said.

And soon a plan began to form.

There had always been a plan. From the moment in 2014 when Kwami had scheduled their first date through the couple’s efforts to fight systemic racism, raise awareness and promote justice, there had been a plan, a template, a better way of getting things done.

“It’s for us all to believe we have a stake in how our city, how our county, how our state, how our region comes out of this uprising,” Kwami says. “Since we all have a stake, we all have a voice and we all have a reason to be at the table.”

The Uprising

The inspiration drawn from the family trip to Montgomery in 2018 spawned the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement (APJMM), whose purpose is to acknowledge and learn from the racial, political and religious violence and injustice in Arkansas’ history.

The movement, partnered with Just Communities of Arkansas, is a project of the Abdul-Beys’ nonprofit Washitaw Foothills Youth Media Arts and Literacy Collective (WFYMALC). From there the couple branches into radio, podcasts, film series, education, voting rights, advocacy, community organizing and much more.

“We are looking for empathy and action. That’s what we want. We don’t want charity and religious cover,” Clarice says.

It is all undertaken part-time while Kwami pursues a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and a master’s in American legal studies at Liberty University. Relying on earnings and savings, the couple hopes to soon devote full time to the numerous projects and is on the lookout for partners, sponsors or donors.

But the to-do list won’t wait.

APJMM’s plans to dedicate memorials at the John Carter and Homer G. Blackman lynching sites in central Arkansas have been postponed to next year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are plenty of other things to accomplish in the meantime.

The Abdul-Beys’ priorities list includes, but is not limited to, the V-REP Project for voter registration, education and participation; the “Seeing Arkansas History 20/20” podcast; their efforts with the national Coming to the Table organization promoting racial healing; and plans for revitalizing neighborhoods south of Interstate 630 through the new nonprofit Investing in Black Futures.

The couple wants to create a system in which the people of Little Rock invest in the I-630 area and the Pankey Division. The vision, Clarice says, is not of re-gentrifying neighborhoods for outsiders, but rather a self-sustaining community revitalized by residents, with black merchant leaders who understand what the area needs.

It will take some wrangling with city boards composed of people with unfriendly voting records, and quite likely some sort of tax, Kwami says, but if there is a buy-in, there would be a template that could be used to improve neighborhoods around the state.

“We’re hoping something changes in their ability to empathize with people that live south of I-630, or something changes with them being out of office and being replaced with people that are more empathetic.”

The Abdul-Beys’ work has been given greater urgency by the raw and explosive events of this year.

The murder of Ahmaud Arbery while jogging in Georgia — in essence another lynching — and the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked outrage and protests that persist in some cities. The protests, marred by violence and vandalism and inflamed by police and federal law enforcement aggression, have focused new attention on the Black Lives Matter movement and seem to mark a tipping point.

Corporations, organizations and individuals are reacting as never before, sometimes cosmetically by removing racially insensitive imagery, other times by speaking out in word and deed, as when the NBA went on strike during the playoffs to protest the police killing of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Kwami and Clarice know this is only a moment in time. They may use racial history to inform the present, but they want their work to be about the future, long after the fires are out and protestors have gone home.

“It’s The Uprising of 2020 and it turned out to be a global uprising,” Kwami says. “But during this uprising, one thing Clarice and I were very, very concerned with was, when all of this dies down, what then? What can we do to capitalize on the momentum of this movement to continue its intent after all the uprisings that we’re seeing on the news end?”

1994

Kwami wanted to serve in the Air Force as his father, Vietnam veteran Edward Moore, had done. He entered the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1989 planning to study medicine as a member of the class of 1994.

While there he converted to Islam, and his time at the academy coincided with the buildup to the first Gulf War, when the coalition led by the U.S. drove Iraq out of Kuwait. There was a wave of national patriotism, but Kwami, one of the 20 black cadets in an enrollment of 3,000, saw the racism slithering behind the flag-waving.

“You’re marching in formation and you look up to salute the American flag and you see all those Confederate flags flying out of the windows of the upperclassmen,” he says. “That was very hard to do.”

Kwami morally and vocally objected to the war. He was placed under house arrest as a security threat before being allowed to resign in 1991 and accept an honorable discharge in return for years of silence.

Kwami had shown flashes of activism as a teenager, but the academy experience was the first time he really put himself at risk over principles.

“Where the stakes were real this was definitely the first time, but at the same time it was just something that was bred in me,” he says.

Kwami’s mother, Maudella L. Morehead-Parham, had often spoken up for the downtrodden. His grandmother, Johnnie Elizabeth Dixon Morehead, had worked toward the 1957 desegregation of Central High. His uncle Everett was to be part of the school’s first class of black students, what became the Little Rock Nine, but had to bow out because of asthma.

Kwami earned his registered medical assistant (RMA) certification from the National Education Center Bryman Campus in Virginia in 1992 and by 1994 was back in Arkansas as a substitute social studies teacher at Henderson Junior High. That year HBO aired the infamous documentary “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” and Kwami’s students objected to the negative portrayals of their hometown, calling for a boycott of HBO.

As a member of the Little Rock Task Force for the Prevention of Youth Violence, Kwami urged his students, “Don’t hate the media, become the media,” and PHAT LIP! Youth Talk Radio was born. The program lasted close to a decade on KABF 88.3 FM Community Radio and was the forerunner of many of Kwami’s and Clarice’s projects, including the founding of radio station KWCP 98.9 LPFM Youth Talk Radio.

The station was disbanded over a programming dispute with City Director Doris Wright, and the couple founded WFYMALC.

“Part of Washita Foothills was pretty much born out of, for the two of us together, working with the radio station,” Clarice says.

The couple maintains a radio presence. Their program “Jadestone Vintage Soul” hosted with their 5-year-old son Lorne “The Jazzy Leo” Abdul-Bey, airs from 2-3 p.m. on Tuesdays on KABF.

Credit: Jason Masters

The Plan

Among her many skills — DJ, voiceover artist, photographer, facilitator and mindfulness practitioner — Clarice is also a licensed massage therapist.

She was a vendor at one of Melanie Lacy’s Harambee Markets in 2014 when Kwami showed up in uniform for his job at the time, an EMT with MEMS. Kwami, already a published author with multiple certifications from various schools, had a bite to eat and put his name in for a massage.

He returned for the next market and soon scheduled a full session. It was early November, and as they made small talk after the massage Kwami mentioned he was planning his birthday celebration. He said his birthday was Nov. 7. Clarice’s was Nov. 8.

“That’s when she fell in love with me,” says Kwami, a graduate of Little Rock Central High School.

“That’s a lie,” says Clarice, a graduate of rival Little Rock Parkview.

Nonetheless, something was afoot. When Kwami presented a week-long plan for a mutual birthday celebration, Clarice did some vetting through her friends and said yes.

“Nobody had ever planned a week of activities and making dinner and certain art events going on that I love,” Clarice says.

She jokes about losing a massage client, but she was drawn to Kwami’s consistent, caring treatment.

“I told her I wasn’t looking for a girl to date, I was looking for a woman to marry,” Kwami says.

Mission accomplished. They were married in 2015 and that same year had Lorne, filling out a blended family of five.

“It’s funny how we would say it was almost like we were two ships passing in a way,” Clarice says. “He is more world traveled than I am. He’s lived in different countries and different states and he was always in and out of Arkansas when I was doing my literacy activism with young people and mentoring and things like that.”

The Past & Present

Kwami and Clarice each have a family lineage that ties directly to two of Arkansas’ most horrific episodes of racial violence, histories that have influenced the couple’s present-day activism.

As Clarice often says, “Past is present.”

“We can’t change and solve issues if we are not willing to know the history, know how our ancestors and people before us were able to look at a situation and try to solve it,” she says.

While in high school, Kwami read about Lonnie Dixon, a black 17-year-old from Little Rock who in the spring of 1927 confessed to the murder of a white girl, 12-year-old Floella McDonald, and was executed. Lonnie’s father Frank was the custodian of the church where McDonald’s body was found.

In junior high, Kwami had learned his great-grandfather was a Frank Dixon who had disappeared at some point in the past. When he asked her, Kwami’s grandmother tearfully confirmed Lonnie had been her brother and Frank her father.

The mob violence that followed the murder led to the May 4 lynching of John Carter, a reportedly “feeble minded” black man accused of attacking a white woman and her daughter.

Carter was hunted down and lynched from a utility pole. The mob riddled his body with bullets, dragged it through the city behind a car and burned it at the intersection of Ninth and Broadway streets, site of the Mosaic Temple and the Bethel African American Episcopal Church.

Local newspaper and eyewitness accounts reported pews from the church were used to feed the fire. A man was later seen directing traffic using Carter’s charred arm.

The site of Carter’s lynching is one of the places the APJMM plans to memorialize.

“Our goal is not to just put up markers and do soil samples, but to memorialize and honor families and the descendants and make sure they are involved in the process,” Clarice says.

For her part, Clarice knew her family originated from Tappan Township in Phillips County and often wondered how her father could have roots in Chicago. A genealogy class at the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies helped her unlock the mystery.

Tappan was 16 miles from Elaine, where on Sept. 30, 1919, a disputed shooting of a white man during a period of labor organization by black sharecroppers sparked what became known as the Elaine Massacre.

In the ensuing violence, more than 200 people of color were killed in Arkansas’ deadliest racial confrontation and one of the worst in U.S. history. Clarice’s great-grandfather Larazet Kinchen and her grandfather Lee Kinchen, then 15, fled with the family to Chicago and did not return until Lee was in his 20s.

Clarice’s father, Lemar Kinchen, was born in Tappan and raised with six siblings in Elaine until the family moved to College Station. Learning of the brush with the massacre finally explained to Clarice the distrust her family, especially her father, had of white people.

“He never would really talk to me about it, but I understood the trauma and the paranoia that was going on was because of the life they experienced in Elaine and the deaths.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Shot on location at Fellowship Hall Sound | Styled by Malina Tabor | Makeup by Lori Wenger

The Here & Now

The Abdul-Beys’ efforts to get the state to acknowledge its racially violent past have had mixed results.

The Montgomery trip sparked efforts that led to the introduction of Senate Bill 591, designed to create a truth and reconciliation commission like other states have. Sponsored by State Sen. Joyce Elliott, the bill was voted down in the Education Committee and is now in interim study.

“That was another missed opportunity,” Kwami says. “We wish our state had become a part of it.”

A greater disappointment was the state leadership’s failure to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the Elaine Massacre last year. Gov. Asa Hutchinson was out of the country and no representative came to the ceremonies, remembrances and dedications, while other states sent people with proclamations and letters of support.

“We could have set up commissions and started doing studies and everything,” Clarice says. “And when this George Floyd stuff popped off we could have said, ‘State of Arkansas, we’re ahead of this, we have a template.’”

With systemic racism and racial violence continuing to this day, minds are going to have to be changed, laws are going to have to be changed and leaders who resist those changes are going to have to be voted out. Hence the efforts with V-REP, which is planning voter education and registration events and a film series in late October-early November.

Kwami notes that in the past five years, 41 people in Arkansas have died in police custody. He also notes that only two fifths of them were black.

“One thing that I think will help more white people get involved in changing and using this momentum is if they really understand that what we call systemic racism is really part of a bigger umbrella that is called structural violations,” Kwami says. “And structural violations happen to everyone.”

The difference is that black and poor people don’t have the collective voice to speak out against such violations. That power can only come when the majority of white Americans realize many of the nation’s racial problems are shared problems.

When that happens, Kwami and Clarice, and their counterparts across the nation, will be ready with a plan.

“If you good white people want to be a part of it, let’s do it,” Kwami says. “But we can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t sit and cry and complain and protest and march because nothing is going to get done unless white people want it to get done.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Related Articles