The Rev. Jesse Turner, pastor of Elm Grove Baptist Church and executive director of Interested Citizens for Voter Registration in Pine Bluff, on Tuesday denounced what he termed “the political flavor” of an Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission MLK Holiday Celebration program Monday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
About 1,000 people attended the event in which keynote speaker Isaac Farris of Atlanta was critical of Arkansas Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson and former GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain. Farris said Hutchinson couldn’t be trusted and Cain is a “good friend” but “thinks differently.”
Farris is King’s nephew — a son of King’s sister, Christine King Farris.
Turner said Isaac Farris’ comments tainted the state commission-sponsored gathering and the memory of King.
“The purpose of the event wasn’t to endorse or support a candidate or party,” Turner said. “It was to honor the memory of Dr. King and his civil rights achievements. It was a blatant misuse of taxpayers’ funds to bring in a person expressing personal political preferences when he’s supposed to be talking about bridging the gap and community service.”
Turner said MLK Commission Executive Director DuShun Scarbrough should explain and make a public apology for Farris’ remarks.
“It should be made clear in the future that the commission won’t allow anything political on state time,” Turner said. “This was out of order.”
In a Tuesday evening telephone interview, Farris said he didn’t see his comments on Hutchinson — who did not attend Monday’s event and according to Farris, had not been involved in any of the commission-sponsored King Holiday events Farris attended – as political.
“It was more that I was complimenting those (political figures) who were there,” Farris said. “I’m not trying to choose sides. I’ve got no issue with Asa Hutchinson.”
Farris said he has been told that Turner “leans toward the Republicans” and might have been sensitive against any statements he perceived as possibly being biased.
Turner is a Republican.
Scarbrough said Farris’ words were his own and Farris’ opinions were independent from the commission.
“We are not political,” Scarbrough said of the commission. “Both Democratic and Republican candidates and current office holders were invited to be there.”
Scarbrough added, however, that future commission events “can do without any statements that might be received as political.”
Jefferson County Republican Party Chairman Peter Smykla addressed the issue Tuesday night, saying his group was disappointed that “this wonderful event commemorating the life of a great man was politicized.”