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UA Little Rock Juneteenth Speaker Urges Listeners to Vote so They, Others Can Benefit

Chris Jones
Chris Jones speaks during a UA Little Rock campus community Juneteenth celebration. Photo by Benjamin Krain

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock hosted its third annual Juneteenth celebration on June 19, with an all-day commemoration featuring food, fellowship, music, and Dr. Chris Jones as the keynote speaker.

Chancellor Christina Drale recalled past observances on campus and talked about the day’s significance.

“Juneteenth is an important occasion worthy of our attention,” she told those gathered at Jones’ presentation. “As an institution of higher education, it’s also our obligation to share the historical significance of this day in which freedom itself was set free, no longer limited to a privileged set of Americans.”

The federal Juneteenth holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.

Joyce Elliott, a former state senator and current executive director of Get Loud Arkansas, introduced the keynote speaker.

“Dr. Chris Jones is a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and was the first African American major party nominee for governor of the state of Arkansas,” Elliott said, adding that Jones was raised by two preachers and developed a love for Christ and a love for science.

An ordained minister, the Democratic nominee in the 2022 Arkansas governor’s race, holds math and physics bachelor’s degrees from Morehouse College, an M.S. in nuclear engineering and an M.S. in technology and policy from MIT, and a Ph.D. in urban studies and planning from MIT.

In his keynote speech, “The Benefits and the Be,” Jones told the crowd that “we can’t get the benefits part without someone doing the ‘be’ part.” The benefits only come after the hope and the work, he said.

Jones said people fought for freedom, voting rights, and change so that others could get the benefits, explaining that if you want change, you must choose to be part of making it happen.

Throughout his message, he encouraged people to vote.

“Our power is exercised in our vote,” he said. “Today we celebrate and reflect. Today we embrace a legacy. Today, this anniversary of freedom should serve as a reminder that the fight for equality and justice continues. Today we should recognize that there is still hope – still hope if we engage, still hope if we show up, still hope if and only if we exercise our power to vote.”

During a Q&A session after his speech, Jones was asked if he planned to run for office again. He said he had not made a decision.

An ensemble at the UA Little Rock 2024 Juneteenth event.
An ensemble performs during the UA Little Rock campus community Juneteenth celebration.
Photo by Benjamin Krain

During Wednesday’s Juneteenth commemoration, performer S. Juain Young led an ensemble in a stirring medley of songs including “Oh, Freedom,” “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired,” and “Lean on Me.” The crowd joined in by clapping and singing at several points during the performance.

Spoken word poet Leron McAdoo, who delivered UA Little Rock’s Spring 2024 Commencement addresses, also spoke during the Juneteenth event. He passionately recited an inspiring poem with the refrain “Find your purpose, do your service.”

UA Little Rock’s celebration kicked off with a video montage of faculty, staff, students, and alumni sharing their thoughts on the holiday that was shared via email and social media.

“Through resiliency and determination and pure passion, we have made astronomical strides to become our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” graduate student Teuana Smith said. “As we reflect on Juneteenth, it is a reminder of where we started, how far we have come, and the work still to come in 2024, and beyond.”

While Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate, it should be more about reflection and coming together for conversation so we can “acknowledge and affirm all of our identities as diverse as we are but also recognize that we always and still have much more work to do,” said Dr. Melvin Beavers, UA Little Rock associate vice chancellor.

Event attendees enjoyed a lunch in the Donaghey Student Center that included Southern classics such as catfish, greens, peas, chicken spaghetti, and candied yams. Nearby resource tables boasted Juneteenth cookbooks, information from the City of Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, and voter registration opportunities by Get Loud Arkansas. Free Juneteenth t-shirts were available while supplies lasted.

“This has been a great experience to be able to socialize and fellowship,” said Ashrael Wordlaw of Conway. ”The food was amazing.”

Dequita Crockett, a 2003 UA Little Rock graduate, also attended the luncheon.

“Any alumni event is always a joy to partake in and what better time than to celebrate the freedom of ancestors,” she said.

Crockett said she discussed the holiday with her 87-year-old grandmother that morning adding that “to live in the present moment and be able to commemorate those who weren’t free is an honor.”