Arkansas: Not exactly Texas. Both states turn 150; but where Texas has 10-gallon ego, Arkansas struggles with an `inferiority complex'
Little Rock, Ark.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is not unaware that his state's big neighbor to the southwest is also celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. But even as Texas pretty much steals the sesquicentennial show -- who could possibly outdo a celebration featuring James Michener's blockbuster novel, ``Texas,'' ABC's ``Good Morning America'' broadcasting from the Alamo, and Prince Charles in a cowboy hat? -- Governor Clinton quietly notes an historical fact he'd like to turn to Arkansas's advantage. ``They [Texans] are really celebrating the 150th anniversary of their independence from Mexico, while we're celebrating 150 years of statehood,'' he says. ``For that, Texas is going to have to wait nine more years.''
Unfortunately for Arkansas, however, the distinction does not appear to have piqued the nation's interest. The governor himself is the first to say that ``we're not getting near the national attention we deserve.'' And others here wonder if maybe even Arkansans don't have a clearer image of their tall neighbor than of their own state.
``We have no simple unifying symbol like the Alamo or the oil well,'' says Clinton. Arkansas -- a largely rural state claiming no dramatic historical event like California's Gold Rush, no captivating city like New Orleans -- has been hurt by its lack of a ``common identity,'' according to Clinton.
Even if the rest of the country isn't watching, he says the state is profiting from its sesquicentennial teaching Arkansans more about their home. ``Just having our own people get to know their state better can have a dynamic impact on what happens here,'' says Nan Brown, director of the Arkansas Sesquicentennial Commission.
She notes, for example, that many Arkansans have considered their state a poor backwater on the national stream, especially when juxtaposed with their wealthy neighboring state.
Learning that Little Rock is home to the largest brokerage firm (based on total capital) off Wall Street (Stephens Inc.), or that little Bentonville, Ark., is home to what is now the country's fourth-largest retailer (Wal-Mart Stores), could help some Arkansans get past what Ms. Brown terms ``an inferiority complex.''
Any visitor is likely to be told more times than the state has counties that ``the richest man in America,'' Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, is an Arkansan. But the point of a year of special activities and history projects is much more than convincing natives that they don't have to leave to make their fortune, state leaders say.
Gov. Clinton says his goal is that Arkansans learn more about their ``common culture,'' as well as the changes sweeping the state. These range from a diversification of agriculture to an immigration of retirees that, in proportion to Arkansas's size, rivals Florida's.
The sesquicentennial commission has sanctioned more than 50 publications planned for this year on various aspects of the state's history. Clinton says he is especially hopeful that three new comprehensive history books aimed at different age groups will foster an increased awareness of ``our heritage.''
Beyond that, the third-term, 39-year-old governor says he hopes the year-long focus on the state will encourage Arkansans to ``collectively make some decisions about where we want to go in the future'' and about ``redoubling our efforts'' to address the economic, social, and educational problems facing a state. Clinton points out that 40 percent of the population has lost economic ground in the past five years.
``I think you can do that in something like a sesquicentennial year,'' says Clinton, ``because people are thinking more about their state, and their responsibilities to it.''
Despite its desire to carve out an identity, Arkansas may never develop symbols as recognizable as the Alamo. But Clinton says he'll be satisfied if his state can earn some of the recognition he believes it deserves for what he considers its three best attributes: natural beauty, diverse agricultural products, and the ``industry'' of its people.