Chanting that they want jobs and want to be free, a small group of people marched down Main Street to the Jefferson County Courthouse on Saturday morning to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington led by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The march and program, which had the theme “Pine Bluff Action to Realize the Dream,” was sponsored by the NAACP and Arkansas Community Organizations.
“Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King went to Washington with a list of demands,” said Pastor Toney Orr, one of Saturday’s speakers. “He looked the government in the eye and said you promised us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and we’ve come to cash the check you gave us.
“The government will say you can’t cash the check because there are insufficient funds,” Orr said. “They will pressure you to pay your taxes but they won’t pressure Exxon-Mobil or Verizon. They give them rebates. It’s time to start demanding they do something for us.”
Orr said that state funding for Head Start programs in the state have been cut by $600 million but the Arkansas Legislature gave more money to the Department of Correction.
“That’s like saying we’re not going to educate you but we will lock you up,” Orr said.
He also called upon those in attendance to “put pressure on elected politicians and if you didn’t vote, there are no excuses and you can’t complain.”
Former State Representative Efrem Elliott, who will be a Democratic candidate for District 16 of the Arkansas House of Representatives next year, said “thinking outside the box” is necessary to improve the economy in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, there were 60,000 people in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County,” Elliott said. “Now there are 48,000 and the reason is there are no jobs.”
Elliott said creating and luring new jobs needs to be done “the old fashioned way,” specifically by improving infrastructure such as streets and covering ditches.
“Why not invest back in the community?” he asked. “Say let’s hire 15 or 20 people to improve infrastructure. We’ve got to help ourselves first.
Another way to improve the economy would be for businesses to create incentives for customers, Elliott said, suggesting that businesses give discounts to customers to shop locally.
“Other cities do it so why not look at what they do?” he said.
The Rev. Leroy Edwards spent part of his time talking about racial profiling.
“I’ve been racially profiled and probably many of you here today have been as well,” he said.
Edwards said strides have been made in stopping that practice, explaining that in August, a Federal Court said the New York “Stop and Frisk” law was unconstitutional.
He also briefly discussed the role of public schools versus charter schools, saying that the two have become rivals and are competing for federal tax dollars.
It’s time for us to stand up and get involved,” Edwards said. “Public schools are still vital to the community.”