By BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown – Jan. 9, 2022 — A national furor was ignited ahead of the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations after the state’s namesake commission unabashedly announced former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee as the keynote speaker for its annual kickoff event on Jan. 17.
However, since announcing that former Gov. Mike Huckabee would headline the “invitation only” 2022 Annual MLK Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission has gone silent even as the controversy has created a social media firestorm that has spread through the weekend.
Chief among the concerns raised by leaders of the Democratic Party and several threads on Twitter and other social media forums is why the MLK Commission has turned the annual event into a political charade, especially since Huckabee is the father of the pro-Trump frontrunner for the 2022 gubernatorial race – Sarah Sanders Huckabee.
Just as is concerning, critics say, is the state’s 44th-governor-turned-failed-presidential candidate-turned-Fox News-talking head’s racist tropes on former President Barack Obama, Black Lives Matters, the Jan. 6 Insurrected and a host of other critical civil right and public policy issues.
Over the weekend, letters from Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus (ADBC) President Debrah Mitchell and local civil rights activist Annie Abrams to MLK Commission Executive Dushun Scarbrough have emerged that decry Huckabee’s selection to headline the organization’s annual interfaith kickoff breakfast on Jan. 17. Both have been widely shared on social media platforms before the nation celebrate the federal holiday marking the birthday of the nation’s iconic civil rights leader.
For example, in one Twitter stream (here) started by Sylvia Brown, a progressive public policy wonk and a Hope native, several social media followers applaud Mitchell’s two-page letter that strongly rebuked the choice of Huckabee to front the nonpartisan event.
“Arkansas is very fortunate to have a Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission. At its best, this taxpayer-supported state agency is empowered to educate all Arkansans by amplifying the life and legacy of a great American minister and activist who helped advance the progress of racial equity in our country,” wrote Mitchell. “In this spirit, we write to express our deep disappointment and true outrage with the MLK Commission’s decision to select former Gov. Mike Huckabee as guest speaker for the annual MLK Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on the King holiday …”
In laying out her case, Mitchell pointed to Huckabee’s criticism of former President Obama as a phony Christian, despite the former governor’s and Southern Baptist preacher’s own decision to leave the pulpit to enter politics. Mitchell also bullet-pointed Huckabee’s frequent criticism of the BLM movement and the Fox News host’s Huckabee’s claim that the January 6 insurrection was more of “a rally that turned into a riot because of a few bad actors.”
“And let’s not forget that Mr. Huckabee has publicly shared suggestions for suppressing voting rights using fraud and trickery,” wrote Mitchell. “Dr. King spent 10 of his final 13 years inspiring the nation to act on civil rights through non-violence, including the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In fact, the King family has requested that observances of this year’s King Holiday be devoted to supporting the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Considering this request by Dr. King’s heirs, the selection of Mr. Huckabee becomes even more difficult to understand.”
Mitchell also raised the most obvious question asked on Twitter over the weekend and led to local national stories on progressive news sites such as Arkansas Times Blog, RawStory.com, RacialEquality4DC.com, and DemocraticUnderground.com. And that is why Huckabee was asked to headline this nonpartisan event four months ahead of the 2022 Arkansas Republican and Democratic primaries, and just 11 months before the eventual 2022 governor’s race to replace term-limited Gov. Asa Hutchinson, also a Republican.
“(T)he simple fact that the invited speaker is the father of an announced candidate for governor begs the question, ‘why would the Commission politicize a spiritual event this year and at this time when our nation is so divided over politics?’” asked Mitchell, whose group is an arm of the Democratic Party of Arkansas.
In closing, the ADBC asks its supporters to skip the MLK Commission’s “invitation only” event and contact Scarbrough to register their complaint. That plea continues to spread like wildfire across several progressive Twitter feeds.
“As leaders in this community, we will not sit politely by and allow this event to occur without denouncing this choice. We must devoid this event of any positive value and stand up in dignity rather than sit silently in frustration,” wrote Mitchell. “We will not attend this year’s Prayer Breakfast. Instead, we will join allies from across Arkansas in honoring Dr. King’s legacy through service to our communities.”
In support of ADBC, the state Democratic Party also posted Mitchell’s letter on its Twitter page and website. It further tweeted that the MLK Commission “is at risk of turning the state’s #MLKDay program into a campaign stunt for @SarahHuckabee led by her dad @GovMikeHuckabee. That would make a mockery of the legacy of Dr. King.”
Annie Abrams speaks
But it is the letter from Abrams that takes Scarbrough to task for creating a controversy when there was not one and engaging in possible unethical conduct. She further expresses disappointment that the event flier attempted to compare Huckabee with other white interfaith leaders from the civil rights era who marched with Dr. King.
“First, let me thank you again publicly for all of the great work you have done leading the MLK Commission and preserving the King legacy,” wrote Abrams. “As one of your most ardent supporters there comes a time when I have to give you advice that may seem hurtful and disparaging; and this is one of those times. Please accept what I say in love and in the spirit of truth.
“When I began to receive phone calls regarding the MLK Annual Interfaith Prayer Breakfast I was I had not seen the event (flier); however, when I was given a copy I was disappointed,” Abrams continued. “The selection of the picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the interfaith Caucasian leaders seemed to equate that there are some similarities between those interfaith leaders who marched side by side with Dr. King to former Governor Huckabee. The concept and comparison is ludicrous. The selection appears to be an endorsement of the Republican agenda espoused by former Governor Huckabee and the Republican gubernatorial heir apparent, Sarah Sanders Huckabee.”
After Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge dropped out of the Republican primary race for governor in November, the Arkansas GOP machine has smoothed the ramp for the former spokeswoman for former President Donald Trump to focus all her campaign treasure trove and time on the general election rather than the GOP primary in May. (See BCN story here.)
With less than a year before the 2022 general election, the Republican frontrunner has posted record Arkansas fundraising totals of nearly $11.3 million in the third quarter of 2021, dwarfing all other Republicans and Democratic in the race to replace the term-limited Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
For her part, Abrams also takes Scarbrough and the MLK Commission to task for scheduling the interfaith breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion for a selected few and without regard for diversity and inclusion and COVID-19 protocols.
“There is a fear among many that you received outside pressure to host the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast with former Governor Huckabee as the keynote presenter in order for you to keep your appointed position under the new administration,” Abrams said. “If so, that would be unethical for the Huckabees to use the event for a photo opportunity for the gubernatorial campaign. We all are left to contemplate your reasoning behind your decisions.
She closes her letter by listing her many affiliations with local and state MLK events, including serving as a charter member of the Commission, her role as founder of the MLK Marade in Little Rock, and a recipient of the National MLK Award.
“I have met the King family and I am convinced that the selection of former Governor Mike Huckabee would not reflect the legacy of the King family,” Abrams concludes.
Arkansas’ troublesome MLK history
The local media firestorm over Huckabee’s role with the interfaith event comes just a week ahead of only the fourth time Arkansas has celebrated MLK Jr. Day as a state holiday apart from Robert E. Lee Day. During the 2017 legislative session, Gov. Asa Hutchinson bull rushed a new law through Republican supermajority at the Arkansas legislature to make MLK Day in Arkansas a separate state holiday. Before the bill was approved, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi were the lone states in the union not to celebrate MLK Day as a national holiday.
The Commission and Sanders campaign has remained quiet concerning the emerging controversy. Scarbrough did not respond to a request for comment from BlackConsumerNews.com. The Commission kicks off this week with several events leading up to MLK Day, ranging from a virtual Facebook community conversation on Jan. 11 to nonviolence press conference with Oscar winning Actor Lou Gossett and rapper and actress Yolanda “Yo-Yo” Whitaker.
Created by Act 1216 of 1993 as an independent state body, former Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and the 87th General Assembly restructured the MLK Commission in 2008 after the governor called discord and infighting among board commissioners “an embarrassment to Arkansas.” Over the years, the commission sparred about whether to fire former Democratic Sen. Tracy Steele as its executive director before he resigned to work in the private sector and made a close but failing run for North Little Rock mayor.
Act 309 put the governor in charge of hiring the executive director and Beebe agreed to retain Scarbrough as Steele’s successor in 2008. The state’s former Democratic governor also backed legislation that downsized the Commission from 26 to 13 members and gave the sitting governor final say in selecting the chair.
Under Gov. Hutchinson’s 2019 state government transformation plan, the MLK Commission was further decentralized when the Republican governor reduced the number of state agencies from 42 to only 15 cabinet-level departments. In making the MLK Commission a part of the state Department of Education, the formerly independent civil rights group is now a state-controlled division that reports directly to Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key and Gov. Hutchinson.
Incidentally, the Huckabee headliner to kick off a lengthy list of MLK Day activities in Central Arkansas and across the state and nation will be held at the Governor’s Mansion. In the flier sent out by the Commission highlighting the upcoming event, a headshot of Huckabee and a Civil Rights era photo of Martin Luther King Jr. shoulder-to-should with white ministers are prominently displayed as few Black supporters are seen.
As the flier began to circulate over the weekend, most of the responses on social media bashed the Commission and its selection of Huckabee. Here are a few from Twitter:
“The Vaccinatrix@gelderbailey. White Republican men take over MLK prayer breakfast, turn it into a campaign event for Trump sycophant Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Wowowowow. Shameless.”
Bill Pelotte@KLGLASS2. I don’t know about you, but having Mike Huckabee be the keynote speaker at an MLK breakfast is akin to having Richard Spencer speak at the Holocaust Museum.
Joey Putin (Vlads Democratic Brother)@PuddingVladdy. Replying to @CroneRiffic. Was David Duke already too busy to speak at Arkansas’ MLK day instead of Mike Huckabee???
[This story will be updated by the BCN Staff as we gather more information.]Leave a comment